I always think of London as an immense plateful. There's no way you can get your mouth around all of it, or your mind. This rich, succulent, sprawling urban heap is home to the best theater in the world, the best museums and parks, the wittiest people and, with Daley Thompson's Olympic gold-medal performance, the best athlete. And the really good news is that in the coming months you can sample it all at bargain prices.
The strength of the dollar means that, depending on what you fancy and what you can afford, everything is incredibly or relatively cheap. With the pound hovering at historic lows to the dollar, the most extravagant meal in town, dinner at the ravishing Connaught Hotel on Carlos Place, is around $120 for two (where once it would have been closer to $200). The hottest ticket in town, on the other hand -- an orchestra seat for the Royal Shakespeare Company at its new home in the Barbican arts complex -- costs around $12.
You can approach London's riches in various ways. For anyone who's never been, the London to see is the London of legend, a city as familiar to the imagination as Main Street: Big Ben, Hyde Park, the Changing of the Guard, Harrods, the views of Parliament from Waterloo Bridge, the Tower. More ardent sightseers might want to add the refurbished Covent Garden area, the renovated buildings on the river in Chelsea or Churchill's wartime bunker, which has been so accurately restored it looks like the set from a BBC serial.
If you have an urge to get away, you can take London from its edges. The urban sprawl merges at its outskirts with the countryside. Within an hour you can be in some delicious pastoral backwaters. Head west, for instance, and you come not only to Windsor Castle, Eton and Oxford, but to Thames-side towns like Bray and Mortlake. Driving south, after what seems an endless slum, you are quite suddenly in the rolling hills of the Sussex downs. A boat trip on the river takes you to Greenwich and the Queen's House, one of the loveliest baroque buildings in England.
But back in central London, there are, of course, myriad pleasures. Every taste can be easily satisfied, whether in eating or sleeping, shopping or museum-going. Nothing can stale London's infinite variety. The following are among some of the newest and nicest.
WHERE TO STAY: The newly redecorated Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge (22 Basil St., phone 589-5171) is small and elegant; the rooms are all chintz and pine, and the bathrooms have marble floors. Both the bar and the restaurant are excellent in their own right, something the Capital shares with Blakes Hotel (33 Roland Gardens, 370-6701) also newly expanded.
A favorite of folks in the movie biz, Blakes has a glitzy basement dining room with first-rate food, and although its rooms are small, its suites are truly lavish. (Both the Capital and Blakes run $120 and up for a double.)
Considerably less expensive are Number Sixteen (16 Sumner Place, 589-5232), a posh take-off on the traditional London bed-and-breakfast, and No. 11 Cadogan Gardens (11 Cadogan Gardens, 730-3426). A Belgravia town house turned hotel, 11 Cadogan Gardens was, for a time, the best-kept secret in town. But it's had so much well-deserved publicity recently, it's now well worth booking well in advance. Some of its rooms have canopied beds, there's a wonderful wood-paneled drawing room where you can have tea in front of the fire, and the staff will remember your name.
If you're keen on true luxury, the best in town is the Berkeley (Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, 235-6000). Its rooms are enormous, the bathrooms superb, and there's a roof-top swimming pool, all marble with views of Hyde Park. (About $150 for a double.)
WHERE TO EAT: There was once a theory that you couldn't get anything worth eating in London, a theory long dispelled by the presence of some very good restaurants. Some of the best of the new include: Hilaire (68 Old Brompton Rd., 584-8933), an airy, elegant place with palms in the window, lazy fans on the ceiling and careful, inventive cuisine; and l'Aventure (3 Blenheim Terrace, 624-6232), which has good French cooking, cozy decor and a London rarity -- a wonderful terrace perfect for balmy nights.
The high-tech, high-punk addition to the London scene, good especially for Sunday brunch, is Le Caprice (Arlington Street, 629-2239), and in Soho there's l'Escargot. Refurbished over the last few years, it's the place to eat after the theater. There's a charming brasserie downstairs, and upstairs the restaurant has good food that runs to wild duck with green peppercorns, great wine, including a number of California vintages, and a wonderful ambiance. (L'Escargot, 48 Greek St., 437-2679.)
Some of the best "English" food is to be had at the great hotels, and if lunch or dinner is out of your reach, go for tea or, better still, for breakfast. In recent years most of the great hotels have begun serving breakfast to nonresidents, and, kipper for kipper, the best can be had at Claridges on Brook Street, the Savoy in the Strand or the Dorchester on Park Lane.
SHOPPING: The plummeting pound means, of course, that most visitors to London are at least mildly obsessed with shopping. The best new men's shop is Scott Crolla (35 Dover St.). The place itself is all postmodern wit and the clothing a combination of traditional tailoring and wild fabrics that run from pure linen and pin stripes to amazing brocades.
The spiffiest socks for men are at S Fisher (12 the Market) in Covent Garden and the best silk shirts for women at James Drew (3 Burlington Arcade), where there are also one-of-a-kind dresses, beautiful sweaters, belts, scarves.
The Fulham Road is rich in interesting boutiques. At No. 78 there's Night Owls for sensuous silken undies and night dresses, and at No. 89, the newly expanded Butler & Wilson, which sells everything from real Art Deco cigarette cases to chandelier-size earrings.
Heraz Ltd. (25 Motcomb St.) in Knightsbridge looks like a mini-souk. It is, in reality, a shop that sells cushions. And pillows. And poufs, many of them made of exquisite, rare bits of old Persian rugs as well as 18th- and 19th-century textiles.
Punk fashion and interesting underground designers can be found around the Kensington Hyper-Market in Kensington High Street, but you need a fair tolerance for retro shock here -- everything from pink stiletto heels to '50s frocks with diamante' straps. St. Christopher Street, however, is a mini-mall for up-market trendies. Lots of high-fashion clothing here, the most stylish for men and women at Margaret Howell -- who also sells tuxedos to Prince Charles.
Anyone in search of rare record labels should try Dobell's Jazz and Folk Record Shop (21 Tower St.) or Caruso & Co. (62 New Oxford St.). Anyone in search of books should head for G. Heywood Hill (10 Curzon St.), which sells new books and old and has a marvelous collection of children's books.
Outdoor antiques and flea markets abound. There's Camden Lock on Sundays with its '60s aura. There's the Jubilee Market for better-quality antiques, in Covent Garden on Mondays. And on Fridays at dawn, there's Bermondsey, south of the river; this is where the dealers go -- and sometimes a lot of thieves.
Finally, whether you're in the market for a vintage car, a rare stamp, old porcelain or just a good time, London's auction houses include not just Christies (King Street) and Sotheby's (New Bond Street), but also Bonham's on Montpelier Street and Phillip's on Blenheim Street.
MUSEUMS: Museums to visit include, of course, the British Museum (where Marx wrote "Das Kapital" in the majestic reading room), the Tate, the National Gallery and the Victoria & Albert (don't miss the William Morris green dining room). But there are also the Wallace Collection, with its extraordinary furniture; the Sir John Soanes Museum, once a private house, and the National Portrait Gallery, whose paintings and photographs tell the history of a country and its culture.
NIGHTLIFE: If at the end of the day you crave a little nightlife, head for the new Hippodrome off Leicester Square. Everyone goes -- punks, grown-ups, celebs -- to this cavernous dance hall, which is all lasers and light shows.
INFORMATION: You can get information on just about anything in London or in Britain from the British Tourist Authority at 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019, (212) 581-4600.
The best guide to hotels and restaurants is "Egon Ronay's Lucas Guide," on sale everywhere in London and in the travel sections of most U.S. book shops.