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It is strange that the word 'comfort' does not appear in any modern architectural curriculum: you can go to lectures ad infinitum on new technology, flexible living spaces, sustainable development and demographic trends, but none on comfort. I would have thought it was a fundamental element of creating a desirable house, let alone a desirable restaurant. Students could well study Rules Restaurant for a definitive explanation. Not only is it utterly comfortable in the purest sense of the word, but, in the lowering gloom of February, it is also deeply comforting. You feel safe there. Everyone looks happy- the clients and the waiters-and isn't that, after all, the point? Try one of the latest clickety-clackety restaurants, with tile floors and chrome fittings rendering mobile-phone tunes cacophonous, and test the level of contentment. Try, for instance, the XXXXXX in Notting Hill Gate. Look around the tables and see the worried faces, the thin veils of bonhomie over tortured souls, the desperation to be seen or to see who else is there. The exposing, cold circumstances have created a remote and unsettled atmosphere.
'There are some restaurants that give one a sense of being at home,' wrote Graham Greene about Rules, 'more at home than in a friend's house, welcome, at peace...'Rules is not just cosy, it has an air of voluptuous indulgence that makes the whole experience of going there feel slightly illegal. Having tramped long sunless streets on the edge of Covent Garden you come off gaunt Maiden Lane into a wave of warmth. Even though it's only lunchtime, it already feels like twilight. Everything is effortless: unobsequious waiters and waitresses hover discreetly, slide off your coat and take your bags.
We sat on a half-moon shaped red plush banquette, linen falling heavily on our laps, a swirly red and gold carpet underfoot. There are swaggy red velvet curtains at the windows, marble busts in black niches, dried hop vines trailing over a huge gilt-framed looking-glass, and stained glass in the lantern above. The walls are painted in old Great Western Railway cream, with every cornice, arch and piece of woodwork picked out in black and gold; everywhere there are oil paintings, prints, caricatures, playbills, layer upon layer of Rules' momentoes and relics from the past 200 years.
We stayed until half past four. My companion, Jonathan Meades, said he had never seen such a good menu in his life- snipe, woodcock, hare, Belted Galloway steak, oysters from the west coast of Ireland. He chose a steak from the Champion carcass of the Royal Smithfield Show, and congratulated the chef who came round to see us. My salmon fishcake was equally succulent.
Rules may flaunt its past famous clientele, but the younger generations keep on coming. The group lunching opposite us were all under thirty, and our waiter was young, smiley and impossible good-looking. It may be the oldest restaurant in London, but it is not the anachronism Maureen Lipman dreams of. She jokingly compalined to the young owner, Mr Mayhew, about the electronic order pads: giving them to the waiters 'in your little jewel of a restaurant,' she wrote, 'is like giving a G-string to a nun.'