What Is High Tea? Plus, Tips for Hosting Afternoon Tea at Home

Kara Zauberman
·5 min read
Photo credit: RYAN LIEBE
Photo credit: RYAN LIEBE

If it suddenly seems like everyone is drinking tea, you’re not alone in feeling that way! Thanks to Netflix’s drama Bridgerton, we’ve all been captivated by the juicy gossip, pastel-colored dresses, and extravagant tea parties of Regency-era London. At first glance, you may think those elegant gatherings with dainty teacups and tiny sandwiches are what some people call “high tea,” but that’s not technically correct. In fact, the tradition of a lavish teatime with all the fixings is actually what the British call “afternoon tea.” So, what is high tea and how does it differ from afternoon tea? Don’t worry—we’ll break down the difference between high tea and afternoon tea and tell you everything you need to know about throwing your own Bridgerton-inspired tea party just in time for season two.

Whether you’re planning a Mother’s Day activity, hosting a themed bridal shower, or just looking for a fun excuse to gather with friends, you’ll want to break out the tea kettle and channel your inner Dutchess. Along with scrumptious treats and savory bites, there are table setting ideas to transform your meal into a lovely afternoon tea.

When it comes to proper English tea, there are some rules you need to know—Ree Drummond learned this the hard way. When she was young, she attended afternoon tea at the Plaza Hotel in New York City with her mother and godmother. “I’d never had afternoon tea before—my mom had to remind me to keep my voice down because I was too loud!” she recalls. But despite the proper etiquette required, hosting a tea party couldn’t be easier and it’s perfect for spring.

What is high tea?

Despite what you might think, high tea is not the fine china dish-clad event that’s promoted by many hotels and restaurants. Traditionally, high tea was a more casual, working class meal that consisted of hearty dishes following a long day of work. No crustless finger sandwiches here! Instead, high tea often included heavy meat dishes, baked beans, and potatoes. The use of the word “high” refers to the high-backed dining room chairs where people would sit down for the meal, compared to the low-backed armchair or sofa often found at afternoon tea. While both events are centered around drinking tea, the two concepts are actually completely different. The confusion comes from many upscale hotels and restaurants who often misuse the term high tea. Today, many places (even in the U.K.) use the term high tea and afternoon tea interchangeably.

Photo credit: Eva-Katalin - Getty Images
Photo credit: Eva-Katalin - Getty Images

What is afternoon tea?

Afternoon tea is everything you might think of when you picture towers of finger sandwiches, scones, and lacy décor. Legend has it that afternoon tea dates back to the 1840s, when the Dutchess of Bedford found herself famished between lunch and dinner. What started out as a simple snack and cup of tea turned into a trendy social gathering that she shared with friends. Afternoon tea, served around 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., became popular among the English aristocracy who often enjoyed the meal in drawing rooms or sitting rooms (like the ones you see in Bridgerton). Unlike high tea, where people sat upright in dining chairs, afternoon tea allowed people to lounge in comfortable, low-slung chairs instead. For this reason, you’ll sometimes see afternoon tea referred to as “low tea.”

Types of afternoon tea:

Did you know there’s more than one way to host afternoon tea? Whichever menu you choose, be sure to serve each one with a pot of tea.

  1. Cream Tea: This simple form of afternoon tea includes a paired back menu of scones and cream.

  2. Strawberry Tea: When strawberries are in season, you can add them to the meal for strawberry tea.

  3. Light Tea: Add more sweets to the table, like cakes and cookies, and you have light tea.

  4. Full Tea: Full tea is the most complete meal of the bunch. It includes savory dishes, like sandwiches, followed by sweets, and scones.

  5. Royal Tea: Looking to make your tea party even more extravagant? Some places offer a version of afternoon tea, called Royal Tea, served with a glass of champagne.

How to host a tea party?

Choose the food and drinks:

Once you decide on the type of tea party—whether it’s a light tea with only sweets or a full tea with a whole spread—you can plan a menu with both classic and creative tea snacks. Try a variation of finger foods and mini tea sandwiches that can all be made ahead. For traditional crustless tea sandwiches, try fillings like egg salad, chicken salad, smoked salmon, or cucumber slices.

Don’t forget the delicate scones, clotted cream, and bite-sized sweets! Serve it all on a tiered tray with your favorite types of tea: anything from Earl Grey to English breakfast to chamomile.


Choose the setting:

When it comes to hosting a tea party, the options are endless. You could set it up in your home (like the royals used to do) or opt for something a little more formal at a restaurant or hotel. In the spring, there’s no better place to host a tea party than outside in the garden.

Photo credit:  EmmaIsabelle - Getty Images
Photo credit: EmmaIsabelle - Getty Images

Afternoon tea is an elegant affair, so if there was ever a time to break out the linen napkins and tablecloths, it’s now. Use something with pretty lace or floral details to really set the scene. Then set out a dainty tea set and bouquets of flowers.

What are the rules of afternoon tea?

Drinking tea like a real Brit is not as simple as looks—especially for those who aren’t accustomed to the rules. To avoid an afternoon tea faux-pas, follow these easy steps for proper tea etiquette.

  • Pinkies in! As fancy as it might feel to keep your pinkie up while drinking tea, the proper way to hold a tea cup is with your pinkie finger down.

  • Eat your scones the traditional way. Spread them with cream first, then jam. (And never dunk your scones in the tea).

  • The order of tea and milk matters. This one is hotly debated (even in the U.K.). Many people believe the tea should be poured into the cup first, then the milk.

  • Get dressed up! It's a party, after all.

  • Stir gently. The delicate teacups require you to stir gently and it should be done in a back-and-forth motion, rather than in circles.