I was recently a co-leader to a group of University of Central Florida students on a trip to London and Paris. Sponsored by the university’s Study Abroad department, the trip was designed as a course to teach students how to write about food and wine experiences in foreign countries.
The students were required to pay for all their own meals (except for some largesse along the way that brought a couple of freebies), so I spent a good deal of time identifying inexpensive restaurants for them to visit -- pubs, cafes and the like.
But I also offered for those with the means to do it a visit to a fine dining restaurant. In London, I chose Rules, the city’s oldest restaurant.
Rules just reeks Olde England, and its decor epitomizes the gentry set. Red velour cushions, gilded fireplaces, wood-paneled walls, floral patterned carpeting, and oil paintings, vintage photographs, stuffed game birds and mounted horn trophies are some of the decorative touches. Antique clocks chime the hours. It certainly is not understated. It could make Downton Abbey look quaint.
Tables are covered with long, flowing white cloths, and the waiters have shin-length white aprons under their black waistcoats.
I had visited Rules a few years ago. I had read that the restaurant, located on a small street in Covent Garden, near some some West End theaters, had been given over to the tourists by locals. But that didn’t mean the restaurant had stopped trying. It was still serving excellent food in fine British tradition, but the locals didn’t like the restaurant’s popularity with travelers.
Now I wonder if the restaurant has stopped trying. Service was off -- I was able to listen to those antique clocks chime the quarter hour several times while waiting for food. Although the gentlemen in my group had made the effort to bring a jacket for the occasion of dining in a nice restaurant, many of the people at nearby tables were dressed as though they were visiting a theme park. And I understand it’s an old restaurant, but that doesn’t excuse the dust that was on the ledge next to our booth.
The menu was less exciting, too. Rules specializes in game, and source it from its own upcountry estate. Unfortunately, July is off-season for the likes of pheasant, grouse, partridge and such. Rabbit and deer were the featured game items on our menu.
After an exceedingly long wait for cocktails, my dining companions and I ordered our meals. I started with the London Peculiar (stop snickering!), a pea soup flavored with ham hock. The soup was thick and had a wonderful marrying of the fresh pea puree and salty ham. It was poured tableside by the server -- never mind the pea splatters on the tablecloth -- and I’m sure it was hot when poured. However, those of us who ordered the pea soup sat waiting for the delivery of the Cornish fish soup to one of our table mates. We were certain its delivery was imminent. After all, what restaurant that follows excruciatingly proper service manners would deliver six starters if the seventh wasn’t also ready? I had to flag down our waiter and remind him we were waiting for the fish soup. “I know, I know,” he said. “It’s coming.”
For my entree I had the braised shin of venison on the bone, a bowl of dark chunks of meat sitting atop a puddle of polenta. A few coarsely chopped carrots and some bright green peas offers some color. The flavors were good, although the venison lacked any inherent gamey taste.
I really had no issues with the food, and neither did my dining companions. The students who joined me all said they had a good time, and they were duly impressed with the opulence (although they also noticed the dusty ledge). But I could tell that even the nascent critics realized something was off about the experience.
Those of us who live in a tourist destination know all too well that some restaurants that once were good will rest of their laurels and let the reputation carry them along. Another influx of tourists will pour in next week to fill the tables. I hope we just caught Rules on an off night. I would hate to think that this venerable restaurant has just given up.
Rules is at 35 Maiden Lane, London. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The website is rules.co.uk. The phone number is 44 (0) 307 836 5314.