Afternoon Tea 101 – Basics on the ritual called ‘Afternoon Tea’

Experiencing a proper afternoon tea service may seem quite intimidating or unnecessary to most. It is a British tradition that has spanned a couple of centuries starting in the 1800s, and has taken on different incarnations across the globe. Once you have experienced your first afternoon tea, you will be hooked, and life may never be the same.

For me personally, afternoon tea has been a passion of mine for over almost two decades. I have experienced the tradition of tea from a casual café in my city of Las Vegas, to fanciful experiences inside the Ritz in London, and to exotic locations such as The Winter Palace in Luxor, Egypt. All have been a divine celebration of the afternoon tea ritual, revolving around the same courses but with their own twists.

I have broken down the courses of an afternoon tea service, what to expect and how it varies from place to place.

Tea Courses broken down:

  • Champagne or champagne cocktail (optional)
  • Serving of tea
  • Scones
  • Savories and tea sandwiches
  • Sweets and pastries
  • Palate Cleanser (optional)
  • Thank you departing gift (optional)

Question of the day …

Is it High Tea or Afternoon Tea?

Envelope please! The correct term for the three course tea party is “Afternoon Tea”. I have never corrected anyone who said “High Tea”, although I do insert the words “Afternoon Tea” while in a conversation as a slight hint. I have called it “High Tea” in the past, but corrected myself after I was curious, and educated myself more about its history.

I have also noticed that in the United States both terms are used interchangeably by restaurateurs and diners, but as for me I go by tradition. I also go by whatever the top of the menu says. Even in the United States, you will see the term “Afternoon Tea” on the top of a menu.

What is the difference between “Afternoon Tea” and “High Tea”? The difference comes down to the class structure in the United Kingdom from centuries back – High Society vs Working Class.

Afternoon Tea (Low Tea) was served at 4:00 PM, but over the decades the time has moved all the way up until noon. It was originally served on low tables (Low Tea) such as a coffee table. It was a social event for ladies, which still stands to current day. Low tea was served in a formal manner using fine china, good silver, and delighting on the three courses (see below). Ladies using manners and etiquette is part of afternoon tea, which means no teaspoon clinking.

High Tea was a slightly heavier meal offered with tea, and was served after a work day. It was typically eaten by the common working class as a bite before dinner, which was much later in the night. High tea was eaten at a higher seated dining table as opposed to a lower coffee table. Do you see the high tea vs low tea, now? High tea was also a heavier meal than afternoon tea. It could be considered a typical meal in today’s standards; foods such as meat, fish, breads and potatoes were all served with this tea.

☕ It is an easy mistake for people to use the words “High Tea” because the word “High” can correspond to high society or high class. Also now-a-days, I have noticed a trend in dining establishments that say “High Tea, because it is the term many people use.  To be truthful, I have never heard people in the United Kingdom say high tea, only “tea” or “afternoon tea”. I will always go with what I hear traditionally, and what I observe but to each their own really.


Afternoon Tea Courses and Variations

There are many variations of afternoon tea from the casual setting in a café, to an elegant Palm Court with a harpist playing in the background. I have experienced both, and everything in between. I certainly enjoyed seeing the interpretations and creativity of each afternoon tea.

Depending on the price and location of your afternoon tea, it will dictate the quality of food, tea, place settings, and the service you will receive. Below I have listed the differences that I have experienced, and what you should expect.


Champagne, Champagne Cocktail, or Mimosas

Starting off afternoon tea with a glass of bubbly whether it be a glass of champagne, a champagne cocktail, or a Bellini is my favorite way to begin.

Not all locations will have the option for a glass of bubbles prior to tea. Most places that offer a glass will be more upscale locations such as The Plaza in NYC, Waldorf Astoria, The Ritz Carlton, or The Four Seasons.


Serving of the Tea

The importance of the tea served is just as important as the food that is offered. Sometimes we see all the delicious bites in photographs, and forget about the beverage that this whole ritual is revolved around- the tea. In most locations that offer afternoon tea, you will be given a tea menu with a selection of caffeinated, floral, herbal, specially blended, etc.

Depending on the restaurant and their choice of how tea is served, it will vary from place to place. For a more proper and pricier afternoon tea, loose leaf will be served in your own personal pot. Serving of the tea can be anything from a formal server showing off his ‘Long Tea Pour’ skills, to an assortment of tea bags with a pot of hot water. In more semi-casual or casual tea services, you may be offered a shared pot or individual tea bags. Please be flexible and enjoy your experience.

There are a few etiquette rules that revolve around the tea cup:

  • If you have a shared tea pot and it is closest to you, please pour to your table friends first and then yourself last.
  • If adding sugar and cream, do not swirl or clink your spoons on the cup. A slight back and forth motion is fine, and place your teaspoon on the saucer, not the table.
  • If you are sitting at a regular height table, pick up the cup only. If you are sitting at a low table, coffee table height, lift your saucer with the cup.
  • Pinkies in and not out!


The Three Courses of Afternoon Tea

In every proper afternoon tea service, you will be offered three courses: Savories and Tea Sandwiches, Scones, and the sweet course, which are typically pastries.

Once your server brings out each course, allow them to speak. Please do not rush and grab food or keep talking. Be polite as he/ she briefly explains to you what each delicacy is.


The Order – There is a traditional order of eating the courses in an afternoon tea, which is first the savories/ tea sandwiches, next the scones, and finally the desserts. Mind you, I have been to several afternoon teas where the scones have come out first, with the tea. The polite thing to do is just go with the flow, and do not get caught up on old traditions.

Tea Sandwiches and Savories

Traditionally the first course of afternoon tea are the sandwiches and savories. This happens to be my favorite part of the tea service. I love the soft little finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Plus the inventive savory delicacies that the chefs create differ from location to location.

OXO Tower Restaurant – London, England

The tea sandwiches offered may be traditional such as lox with cream cheese, egg salad, or cucumber with watercress. I have been to tea where other sandwiches were offered like Coronation (yellow curry) chicken, or ham. In any case, soft sliced bread is used and your sandwiches should be made fresh. One can always tell when finger sandwiches have been sitting out for awhile, as the bread becomes dry. I have eaten dry finger sandwiches before, and it was a very sad thing.

The Veranda at The Four Seasons – Las Vegas, NV

The savories served may be classic canapes to regional bites. I have tried everything from a Haggis Bon-Bon in Edinburgh to a Kofta Canape in Egypt. I truly love the savories because they are ever so different but, always delectable.

The Palm Court at the Plaza – New York City

The savories and sandwiches may come out second after the scones, depending on the restaurant or café. You may get each course individually or everything all at once on a tiered serving tray. There is no wrong or right way about it, I have seen it served every which way possible. In any case, wait until the server goes over what is being served before you take a bite.

The Palm Court at The Balmoral – Edinburgh, Scotland

When eating a finger sandwich, it is fine to pick up the sandwich to eat. Use your judgement when it comes to eating the savories, whether or not you want to pick it up or use cutlery.


The Scones

Scones are typically the second course of afternoon tea, but as mentioned it could come out as the first. They are traditionally served with clotted cream and jam, although I have seen them served with butter once.

Queen of Hearts – Las Vegas

Clotted cream is heavy cream that has been heated, and cooled to a whipped like consistency. It does not really have a taste since it is unsalted, and is similar to unsalted butter or unsweetened whipped cream. While in the UK, I had learned to slather it onto the scone, so it would not taste as dry. To sweeten the scone with your clotted cream, add a dollop of jam that is provided with your scones.

OXO Tower Restaurant – London

Depending on the venue of your afternoon tea, you may get one or two scones.

The British scone is similar to an American biscuit, not like a British biscuit which is a cookie. I have been served scones in different shapes from squares, triangles and the traditional round shape. The consistency can be dry like an American biscuit, but they are often flavored with dried fruits. They are delicious, and do not be shy about topping your scone with a lot of clotted cream and jam.

The Palm Court at The Plaza – New York City

Do not be surprised if you do not receive scones either. I once had two different croissants at Laduree in Harrod’s of London. I have also read that British tea cakes can be served as well. I have yet to try an afternoon tea with tea cakes rather than scones. I am looking forward to that day.

Scone Etiquette:

  • If sharing a communal bowl of clotted cream and jam, use the serving utensils to place a bit of each on the top of your plate, and not on the scone. Then pass both to the person on your right.
  • Split the scones into two halves, so you will have a bottom and a top. It is fine to use your hands to delicately open the scones, and rest them on your plate.
  • Depending on the type of cream and where in the UK you are, place the clotted cream first and then the jam. For myself while in the UK and anywhere else, I have done it in this order.
  • Please do not sandwich the scone halves together and take a bite, eat each half separately.
  • It is fine to pick each half up, and eat by taking a bite. Although I personally prefer to use a fork and knife depending on the scones size and consistency, only because I want to control where the clotted cream and jam hit my face!


Sweets and Pastries

If you are sweet tooth proned, then the third course is made just for you. Hopefully you have not filled up on your scones, tea sandwiches, and savories. If you fill up fast, it is not unheard of to box up the food that you have not been able to get through. My friends and I do it all the time.

The Sweet/ Dessert course has always been a favorite to those who enjoy afternoon tea. It is also a wonderful way to check out the talent of the restaurant’s pastry chef. This is where their imagination rolls out. I have tried everything from a Lemon Curd White Rabbit, a confection shaped as a lime, to divine little chocolatey bites. Everything has been beautiful to look at, and delicious to try.


The Palate Cleanser

I have only been offered a palate cleanser twice during afternoon tea, but I thought it should be mentioned. A palate cleanser is given during a meal to clean the taste buds for the next course. During mutli-course dinners or tasting menus, a palate cleanser helps your tongue get ready for the different flavors of a new course. I found it delightful that I was offered a creative palate cleanser during a couple of my afternoon teas.

Typically a sorbet is served as a palate cleanser, such as this Mango Sorbet Cone from the Balmoral in Edinburgh, Scotland. Although you may receive an inventive one like this Yuzu & Raspberry Pipette from Tres, SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA.


Departing Thank You Gifts

If you find yourself in a luxurious afternoon tea setting, do not be surprised if you are sent home with a lovely gift or two. This does not happen often, and when it is offered I am always grateful. The gifts can be anything from the venue’s writing pens to a special treat for later.

Over the years, I have received little gifts such as cake slices from The Ritz in London and The Plaza Hotel in NYC. The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh gave each customer a little tin of tea and a house made chocolate. I love these types of personal touches that make afternoon tea an even more luxurious experience.

Hoping this little course on afternoon tea has helped you fill in the gaps of what to expect, and how special the experience is!


Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

– Henry James
Yours Truly with a cuppa in Bonn, Germany

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