Reading the City

OF THE MANY THINGS one might expect of the restaurant billed as London’s oldest, decent food ranks fairly low. Red velvet banquettes and red leather chairs, walls crowded with framed portraits and equestrian art, ghostly herds of desiccated antlers, dried floral arrangements and leaf-printed red-and-gold carpet—these are all reasonable expectations. A certain segment of the population might also turn up at Rules (est. 1798), in London’s Covent Garden, with the more desperate ambitions of the literary tourist. Rules was a favorite of Graham Greene’s, and he set two pivotal scenes in The End of the Affair, a favorite of mine, in the restaurant.

The trip was my mother’s idea; the destination was mine. We settled on England, though I first floated something closer, lazier, a place to relax, perhaps be touched by strangers under a desert sun. I was scheduled to turn in a final draft of my first book that spring, and predicted a sort of managed collapse. My mom wanted more pizzazz, more history, an adventure worthy of my grandmother, a champion traveler, who had passed away the previous spring and whose mad money was our travel budget. My grandmother is the subject of one of my book’s essays, and The End of the Affair surfaces in another. I wrote both on the Graham Greene diet: five hundred words a day.

We arrived in London, our compromise, in disarray. I boarded the flight having finked on my deadline. My mother deplaned with a cough requiring bed rest and antibiotics. I wandered London without her, slouching through the itinerary she’d spent months compiling. It rained, but you knew that. I had paused from my manuscript agonies to make only one addition to that itinerary: Rules.

The End of the Affair is, among other things, a novel of place. Set in wartime, its geography is that of a private heartache: Together and then alone, the book’s lovers are bound by a local matrix of street corners, commons, museums, pubs, and restaurants. Bendrix, an author, and Sarah, the wife of a civil servant, fall in love over a dish of onions at Rules, and later meet there following a sudden, two-year separation. Greene celebrated his birthdays at Rules; a private room there now bears his name.

By the evening of our reservation, my mother was well enough to accompany me on a mini tour of Greene’s London that began at Claridge’s, where we sipped £20 drinks in the fumoir. When my mother requested a spoon for her Pimm’s Cup, the handsome bartender disappeared briefly, reappearing at her side with a polished silver tray bearing an exquisitely long-necked silver spoon. “Will this do, madam?” he asked. “Perfectly,” she replied with wonder, as though reunited with a shining object she had long surrendered hope of seeing again.

Later, as I scanned the Rules menu for onions and the room for anxious couples, my mother ordered fish-and-chips, which arrived with a bright green mound of mushy peas. Again she sighed with pleasure. Best chips she ever had. At some point I realized we might be the most anxious couple in the room and ordered another impeccably chilled drink to celebrate. “So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one’s days,” Bendrix says. Taxes are done, chitchat is made, but “the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead.” At Rules I drank to that. I’d go back, my mother told me recently, having read The End of the Affair but preferring those chips. I would too.

Michelle Orange, author of This Is Running for Your Life