Everything You Need to Know About Afternoon Tea in London

Photo of an afternoon tea finger sandwich tray with a mushroom tart, chicken salad and roast beef sandwiches. Frolic & Courage.

Nervous about your first afternoon tea in London? Don’t be! Here’s everything you need to know about the classic British tradition.

I had a lot of questions before I traveled to London for the first time and signed up for an afternoon tea, like “what do you wear to an afternoon tea?” and exactly, “what is afternoon tea?” In this blog, you’ll learn everything you need to know about afternoon tea including the times, best places, history, and a whole lot more!

Who Invented “Afternoon tea?”

In the 1840s Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford would get hungry between meals. Dinner was around 8pm so she would ask for tea, bread, and butter. Later on she invited her noble friends over and thus, afternoon tea was born. Today, afternoon tea is usually a snack between lunch and dinner, between 3-6pm.

What’s the Difference Between High Tea and Afternoon Tea?

Oh dear, I admit that before I went to London I didn’t know there was a difference between the two. Now I know and I’m sharing the information with you so you can be informed, too! Afternoon tea, also known as “low tea”, was originally something the upper middle class took part in. Traditionally, tea and treats are served at low tables surrounded by low, yet comfortable chairs in a drawing room. The food served at afternoon tea is light fare (think: finger food) as it is a light meal served between lunch and dinner. High-tea, however, originated from the working class. After a hard days-worth of labor, people either stood or sat at high-tables at a bar or at home to eat a hearty meal (think: meat n’ potatoes) and drink tea. So the difference is (or was) between class, fare, and table setting.

There are a few other types of tea to be aware of, too. Cream Tea is afternoon tea with just scones, nothing more and Royal Tea is essentially afternoon tea with champagne.

I must admit, understanding the difference between high tea and afternoon tea can be a bit confusing because some places might refer to “afternoon tea” as “high tea” just to appeal to the confused masses. Now that the record is straight and you know the difference, in this post, we’re only talking about the afternoon tea experience.

Photo of a three-tiered tray of finger foods for afternoon tea in London. Frolic-and-Courage.
A three-tiered flight of delicious finger foods.

What Happens During Afternoon Tea? What’s the Proper Etiquette?

Once seated, a server will bring you a menu with a selection of specially-sourced teas and a listing of food. The great this is you get to try it all! You don’t have to pick and choose from each category of food. Once the three-tiered tray and tea is brought to your table you are free to eat and relax.

Here are a few etiquette tips:

  • Place your napkin on your lap, folded side up.
  • Tea will come in a teapot – usually one person pours all the tea for everyone.
  • Use the tea strainer to filter out loose tea leaves
  • Stir your tea from left-right, not round and round
  • Since these are finger foods, start from the bottom up and use your hands to eat
  • Break scones (pronounced “skohn”) with your hands.
Photo of Regular and blueberry scones with clotted cream in the background. Frolic & Courage.
Regular and blueberry scones with clotted cream in the background, yummy!

Expect afternoon tea to take between one and two hours to complete the full service. Also, make reservations in advance! Days of the week, times, and hours vary by establishments, so be sure to check each website for dates and times available.

What to Wear to Afternoon Tea?

Honestly, this is a tough question because each place is unique. The dress code depends on the establishment, but as a good rule of thumb, “smart casual” is what i’d choose. What is “smart casual”? For women: a blouse (not t-shirt), nice pants, flats, or heels, dresses, or skirts. For men: nice slacks/jeans with no holes, button-down or polo tops (not tanks or regular t-shirts). Just imagine you are going on a first date with someone during daylight hours to a nice, but not overly fancy restaurant.

What Should I Expect During Afternoon Tea?

  1. Later Tea Times. One might think “Afternoon” tea might begin at noon, well think again. It is traditionally served at 4pm, but you can make reservations anytime between 11:30am – 8pm depending on the restaurant. Also, afternoon tea can be served during the week or only on weekends. Times and dates vary by restaurant, so please check websites in advance! I highly suggest making a reservation to ensure a table is available and prepared for you in advance.
  2. Excellent Quality Tea. Try not to think of your regular, boxed brand of Lipton or Bigelow tea. No ma’am! Expect high-quality, responsibly sourced, unique, and exotic blends of loose-leaf tea boasting full flavor. Also note that sugar my come in cubes, not packets, and use those tiny tongs to place sugar in your cup. One lump or two, m’dear?
  3. Great Finger Food. It’s not a secret that tea is the highlight of afternoon tea, but the food is superb! What is served at afternoon tea? Expect a blend of savory and sweet delights. Finger sandwiches (smoked salmon, roast beef, chicken salad, or cucumber, etc.) are common, along with biscuits and/or scones with clotted cream & jam, possibly a tart (cheese, ham, etc.), and finally an  array of sweets (chocolate, cakes, etc.). Gluten, vegan, and vegetarian options are available if you ask in advance. Consider it a mini, personalized buffet of treats where yes, you can asks for seconds!
  4. A Unique Experience. The afternoon tea market is hot in London, as you can imagine a lot of tourists and locals alike want to partake in this famed British tradition, so expect different establishments to show their competitive advantage by offering a tea experience with unique twists or themes. The Ritz Carlton – London delivers a very traditional, classic-glam experience. The Ampersand Hotel was voted 2018’s best “Themed Tea” with their Science Tea experience. Farmacy Kitchen boasts a “plant-based” high-tea that is vegan focused and free from dairy, refined sugar, or chemicals and Brigit’s (B) Bakery offers a London tea bus tour where customers board a double-decker bus to view London’s top sites while partaking in afternoon tea. Fortnum & Mason is known for their tea business and offers some of the most flavorful teas around and Mr. Frogg’s offers a “Tipsy Tea”, where it’s not uncommon to enjoy champagne or other “spirits” in your tea.
  5. Impressive Presentation. Expect a 3-tiered rack of deliciousness and the host to fully explain everything you see. The place might serve food on traditional or non-traditional plates – think wooden platters, petri dishes, a mini carousel, etc.- in a fabulous “drawing room” atmosphere.
  6. Higher Prices Than You’d Think. You may think “why would I pay £30 – £70 pounds for just tea?”, but as you can see, you not only get excellent tea but you get a mini personalized buffet with delicious food and of course, it is truly an experience (sometimes with alcohol, too!) There are more affordable options under £20, like the afternoon tea at The Orangery, so don’t fret about the expense.

Overall, I really enjoyed my afternoon tea experience and recommend any first-time London visitor to try it! If you’re looking for more afternoon tea resources, feel free to check out these blogs:

Afternoon Tea YouTube video thumbnail. Frolic & Courage.
Watch the premier of the “Everything You Need to Know About Afternoon Tea” video on Wednesday!

Have you ever been to an afternoon tea? What was your experience like? Share in the comments below!

Antoinette | Frolic & Courage

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