I thought the most noticeable difference in London in the intervening years since I'd last been there was the quality of the food. Not only is there simply more diversity, but the overall quality of everything is just a cut above what it once was. On my last visit I ate (very good) Indian food almost exclusively, but this time I enjoyed a much wider array of choices. Some standouts:
28 - 50 Wine Workshop and Kitchen [140 Fetter Lane, EC4 and 15-17 Marylebone Lane, W1]. There are supposed to be symbols for degrees after the 28 and the 50 -- sorry, I haven't figured out how to do these yet -- and they refer to the latitudes between which most of the world's wine grapes are grown. The name alone hooked me, and even if there wasn't much thought given to the food I'd probably still be a fan. But as it happens the food -- which is in the French bistro style -- is equally as delicious as the wines on offer, and my meal here was terrific and memorable -- and so were those of my husband, daughter, and friends. The team behind this venture is Xavier Rousset and Agnar Sverrisson, who met while working under Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons (and who also own Texture at 34 Portman Street, W1, which earned a Michelin-starred accolade in 2010.) The chef is Paul Walsh, who worked at Gordon Ramsay, Royal Hospital Road, and the manager is Ed Newman, who first met Rousset in 2001 when they worked at the Hotel du Vin. The 28-50 team "only serve wines we like, that are interesting, drinking well and offer good value" and there are 15 reds and 15 whites offered by the glass, carafe, and bottle. These change frequently, plus there is a 'collector list' of fine wines from friends who are private collectors -- some of these are rarely seen in restaurants.
EAT: The Real Food Company chain [100+ locations, seemingly everywhere]. This casual, simple chain wouldn't even be a blip on my radar if we had a North American chain that was as good. But we don't (though I can't even fathom why) so it stands out. An EAT outlet is great if you want a quick but good light meal, hot or cold, and moderately priced. The company was founded in 1996 with the aim of offering the best food, soup, and coffee in London at good prices. I think it's a hit, and EAT was awarded the 2012 honor of 'Best Coffee/Sandwich Shop.' There is always a good selection of soups and sandwiches as well as drinks, salads, breakfast, and savory pies.
Bibendum Oyster Bar [Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, SW3]. Michelin House was originally built in 1909 and was the showroom for Michelin's offices in London. The building itself is "worth a detour" and the colorful tiled exterior is a mix of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. I didn't eat at the Bibendum restaurant but I did enjoy drinks and nibbles in the Oyster Bar, which shares space with a pretty flower stall and is a lovely place to sit down and take a break if you're in the vicinity of Kings Road. Also, in this same building is the Conran store, which is always fun to explore.
The Tate Modern restaurant [top floor of the museum, Bankside London, SE1]. The views all around are really the thing here, but the food's quite good and the space is large so there are lots of seats. There is also a cafe and a bar area, which you walk by to reach the restaurant space, so if you're just in the mood for a sandwich, a beer, or cake and coffee, this might be a better choice -- there's a long counter along huge windows so you still have the views.
-- OK, I now realize I've been working on this post for several days, and as I have a few more to write about London, I've got to wrap this up! (or it will continue on for days...) So, ever-so-briefly, here are other great places:
St. John Bread and Wine [94-96 Commercial Street]
Beigel Bake [159 Brick Lane, E1] (no web site)
PJ's Bar & Grill [52 Fulham Road]
Golden Hind for fish and chips [73 Marylebone Lane, 2PN] (no web site, but note that lunch is served from noon to 3:00; the staff doesn't start serving again until 6:00 p.m.)
...and a few places I didn't get to but would very much like to are Bocca di Lupo [12 Archer Street, W1]; Dean Street Townhouse Dining Room [69-71 Dean Street, W1]; St. Pancras Grand restaurant and oyster and champagne bar [Upper Concourse, St. Pancras International Hotel, Euston Road, NW1];and Zafferano [15 Lowndes Street, SW1], Giorgio Locatellli's place in Knightsbridge (I am a big fan of Locatelli's Made in Sicily book (Fourth Estate, 2011) so this is tops on my list for next time).