Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Rules of Fine Dining.(Revised November 2011)

Rules Restaurant 35 Maiden Lane

When it comes to fine dining Rules is by far and away my most favourite restaurant in London. It is also the oldest restaurant in the capital dating from 1798. For generations it has attracted the cream of English literature and the stage. Even Kings of England have not been averse to whiling away an hour or two entertaining a mistress in the private dining rooms. What makes it  so special in my eyes is not the Edwardian splendour of its interior or the scrumptious traditional British food, much of which is sourced from is own country estate in the High Pennines, or its enviable literary and historical connections. Rather, it is the fact that as a single woman I am made to feel as welcome as anyone else and not treated like some pariah to be shunted next to the loos or viewed as an object of pity, who should eat up quickly so that a couple can be accommodated in my stead. Consequently I have dined there with friends and on my own, with equal enjoyment. It is relatively expensive and so, for me at least, constitutes an occasional pleasure. However, it has never failed to delight. I especially enjoy going there around Christmas-time when it is decked out with holly and ivy and has fires blazing in the fireplace. If it reminds me of a location out of a Charles Dickens novel that is hardly surprising, given that he was a frequent visitor.

Olde Cheshire Cheese 145 Fleet Street

Charles Dickens was also rather partial to the Olde Cheshire Cheese. This public house was rebuilt in the 1660s after the Great Fire of London and still retains a sense of generations of Londoners carousing in its rambling rabbit warren of ancient rooms. It was much frequented by Dr Samuel Johnson, who lived nearby. Although I have gone into the pub just for a drink with friends, I have also dined in the restaurant there, with its evocative high backed wooden settles and Dr Johnson’s favourite chair on display. Again, I have happily supped there on my own and with company. When I went with the Partridge, I dined so well, I was obliged to discreetly remove my corset lest I explode. I have a photograph from our visit of a rather tipsy looking Partridge. But I know if I were to print it on these pages she would lay an egg so I have refrained from doing so.

Dr Johnson’s House 17 Gough Square
Dr Johnson’s house is at 17 Gough Square, only a few minutes walk from the Olde Cheshire Cheese. I took the Partridge there as part of a cunning plan to later dine at the famous public house.

Highlights for me included:
  • The 18th century front door garlanded with iron chains. Dr Johnson feared thieves and bailiffs in equal measure.
  • The floor to ceiling internal wooden room dividers which could be readily moved to open up the rooms as required.
  • The cream coloured woodened panelled library.
  • The black and white painted wooden staircase. Living as I do in my fourth floor garret at the top of a Victorian house, I am always fascinated by period staircases.
  • The garret in which Dr Johnson and his six assistants laboured to produce the famous Dictionary.
  • The wardrobe of clothes and masks for children to try on. I was very taken with a white mob cap and a gilded sun-god mask, giving me the appearance of a transvestite Louis XIV.
        Dr Johnson's House

(I later came across some footage of the interior and exterior of Dr Johnson's House and wrote a separate post about it.  

Brasserie Terminus Nord, Gare du Nord, Paris

By comparison to Rules or Olde Cheshire Cheese, Brasserie Terminus Nord in Paris is a mere spring chicken of a restaurant, dating only from the 1920s. I was staying on my own in Paris a number of years ago and had read such glowing reviews I was determined to dine there. I walked into a cavernous and empty restaurant which was on two floors. The décor was uninspiring. Hoping the food would be better I sat down to eat. The waitress came over and wanted me to move next to the loos. The restaurant was empty, even more so when I upped and left in high dudgeon.  I continued along the street and came across the real Terminus Nord.

The restaurant was still resplendent in its 1920s art deco décor. The charming waiters (note plural) showed me to my booth with its upholstered leather seating and acid etched glass surrounds. What would Madame like? Madame wanted an hors d’oeuvre, followed by fish and a tart. And a kir royale to start! I was so transfixed by the sumptuous surroundings and the amiable waiters, especially when contrasted to the rudeness and lacklustre hospitality of its near neighbour that I completely forgot what I had ordered. So when the waiter appeared with my hors d’oeuvres, as I had already unwittingly scoffed the complimentary hors d’oeuvres, the arrival of my own came as a pleasant surprise. The fish was brought to my table and flambéed in front of me. Truly fine dining as a theatrical experience! When they presented me with a huge tart, I waited for them to cut it. But no, it was ALL for me!  Terminus Nord    

It is a great pity that some people deny them selves such gastronomic delights because they are on their own. I believe one of the great pleasures of dining solo is that it allows me to share my knowledge of excellent restaurants with friends at a later date and so perhaps in time, my favourite restaurants will also become theirs.