Last week, a now-deleted Reddit poster shared the apparent cost of a lunch for 15 Olympic officials, based on a receipt passed along by a waiter friend. That cost: £44,660, or nearly $70,000 — certainly a lot more than a platter of Big Macs and wilted fries, official food of the Games. Sleuths at Gawker traced the bill to China Tang, a Chinese restaurant in-house at the swanky Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane in Mayfair. (The two most expensive properties to buy on a British Monopoly board, which says it all.)
So I decided to see what makes a lunch — even for a large party — worth more than my annual salary. I went to dine at China Tang today.
My reservation, for a late lunch, was at 2:45 p.m. I arrived late, because negotiating the swarms of flag-waving tourists on the walk from Green Park proved to be nearly as tough as the 110m hurdles. Of course, it didn't matter because the dining room was almost entirely empty: only three tables other than my own were filled. That meant zero Olympic officials present, but presumably after you've spent nearly six figures on a meal in one sitting, you can check the restaurant in question off your "must eat there" list.
I ordered one starter — the spring onion cakes, which were great — and allowed myself to be bullied into paying for fancy bottled water rather than just the free tap stuff, hoping that if I kept all the wait staff on my side they'd share gossip about the greedy IOC folks with me between courses. I then set about re-creating the $70k lunch — at least as much as I knew of it, with one obvious exception allowed.
Though it's not a complete receipt, the first full item listed is a chicken dish from the lunch menu — which turned out to be the stir-fried chicken with spices. (There's an unknown dish above at £18, but the menu presented too many options at that price point; I also didn't want to eat two mains all by myself.)
As it turns out, the dish's name is a lie. It's not just stir-fried chicken with spices, it's stir-fried chicken with HOLY SHIT THE ROOF OF MY MOUTH JUST FELL OFF spices, and that fallout happened after I've taken the waiter's advice and avoided the dark, wrinkly peppers. (I do have a very low tolerance for hot food, but still.) In the few mouthfuls before my taste buds committed the sort of frenzied mass suicide that would make a cult leader proud, however, I was able to discern that the chicken was well-cooked and yet still tender, with a very pleasing crunch from the lightly-fried crust. In keeping with the Reddit receipt, I also ordered a side of vegetarian fried rice. This was nice and sticky without being gelatinous; it was cooked with actual vegetable slices — cucumbers, green peppers, and I believe more spring onions, not the suspiciously Playdoh-like cubed carrots and chunky peas your local take-out joint throws in the mix. I did not take a picture of the rice because while it came in a nice cylindrical wooden bowl, it just wasn't very photogenic. Rice, you are no longer in the running to be America's Next Top Starch Model.
Otherwise, so far, so good.
Things got a little awkward pre-dessert. The fifteen-strong party of Games officials ordered sorbets, ice creams and "exotic fruit platters" among them. I was dining solo. Ordering all three options was out of the question, but I felt the similarities between ice cream and sorbet meant that would be ok — I decided to go for just the sorbet and the fruits. And then the waiter fat-shamed me, and what's worse, did so out of genuine concern for what he must have figured was either rank gluttony or my ignorance to the word platter's significance. (To be fair, the portions to this point had been small.) It went down like this:
Cruel to be kind waiter: "Uh, Sir, just so you, uh, know, the, um, the fruit platter is, it's, uh, quite big."
Awkward silence while I die a little.
Feigning nonchalance me: "Ok thanks, but it sounds great and I also really like sorbet."
Awkward silence, this time longer, while the waiter dies a little.
Newly bemused waiter: "So, uh, you'll have the sorbets, yes? It's three scoops."
Pretending to text on my iPhone to avoid eye contact me even though there's no cell service in the restaurant and the waiter must know that: "No, both please."
It then took two waiters to carry the dessert plates to me, which I believe was a deliberately spiteful gesture — and something I would totally involve my colleagues in if I worked in the hospitality industry too, so fair play. Regardless, I just about hoovered down the sorbets — peach, banana, and something that wasn't quite grapefruit but almost — so that I could hide the simple glass dish they arrived on under a napkin and pretend I did just order the fruit platter after all. Smooth moves. (I have no clue what the crispy strip of who knows what accompanying the sorbet balls was, but I liked it.)
The fruit plate proved to be a revelatory experience. As a Brit, I see little point in food that doesn't go in either a sandwich or a meaty pie, and this limits my fruit intake. Scurvy, it's an option. Presented on a fake leaf on a real slate plate, the platter contained at least sixteen different kinds of fruit; I say at least because I think a few of the melon slices were from the same melon, but I'm not 100 percent on that. There was pineapple and papaya and a very tart satsuma and so many other exciting — yes, exotic — fruits I'd have been fine with believing got shipped in from Pandora. I ate them all, bar one.
I couldn't manage this because it reminded me of a poorly groomed testicle.
I then got a hot towel, which is always nice. I fleetingly considered trying the cheapest Hennessy on the drinks menu, but even that was £65. So I just picked up the check, which, voila, does match the Redditors receipt just so:
I should note I didn't receive the free petit fours, probably because the waiters already felt I'd overeaten; though it was also 4 p.m. by that point and lunch service had finished. I didn't even get a mint, for that matter.
During the meal, I asked whether Olympic officials had been dining there — considering the many VIP cars stationed outside the Dorchester and other high-end hotels on Park Lane, it seemed very likely many were staying at the hotel too. I was told that yes, they had — and yes, on occasions big groups had been big spenders, but nothing more specific than that. When I raised the $70k bill in particular, no one could offer confirmation or a denial of any kind.
But even considering the mindset of a group willing to spend nearly $30,000 on an early afternoon's Cognac, the Reddit bill seems a stretch. Let's do some math. Take my meal, subtract one of the two FAT desserts I'd indulged on, and take that as an average lunch for one. Multiply it by fifteen, for the IOC party, which would bring you to a figure of around £700. When that's added to the £19,000 brandy, it's a total still somehow £20,000 short — and given the receipt's meal-related chronology, that £20k would have had to come from starters, 11 people's mains, and an initial drinks order. Is that possible? Yes, but it's a stretch. Is a little bit of Photoshop wizardry to change a £19,698 bill into a £39,698 bill also possible? Yes, and arguably less of a stretch.
Just like how good my petit fours would have tasted, we'll probably never know. I had a nice lunch all the same, and encourage Olympics folks to run up dodgy huge tabs at other posh London restaurants so I can continue this hard-hitting investigative series.