Just Don’t Call It High Tea

Photography courtesy of Bruce Richardson. An elegant afternoon tea at The Ritz Hotel in London, where ties are still required for gentlemen, is on the to-do list of many tea lovers.

Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson

An afternoon spent enjoying tea at a fine hotel or restaurant seems to conjure up feelings of elegance and gentility. After all, tea is synonymous with civility and blessed with the endearing quality of being just a touch sophisticated. But the terms and titles that some hotels or tearooms use to describe their tea offerings—such as Afternoon Tea, Cream Tea, Light Tea, Full Tea, Royal Tea, and High Tea—can be confusing.

The traditional time for afternoon tea in London is between 3 and 5 p.m., though the hours are often stretched slightly in either direction. For example, I once had a Saturday afternoon-tea reservation at The Ritz Hotel at 6:00. That late appointment was not my first choice, but it was the only time available because customer demand had kept the room fully booked throughout the day.

Whether traveling abroad or at home, here is my teatime name guide that might come in handy as you plan your tea adventures:

1. Cream Tea is a short tea break that originated in the southwestern part of England around Devon and Cornwall. This light repast calls only for scones, jam, clotted or whipped cream, and a pot of tea.

2. Full or Afternoon Tea includes three or four courses accompanied by pots of tea. The staff should pour tea before the food arrives. Finger sandwiches, such as cucumber, smoked salmon, or chicken salad, make up the first course. Scones, usually accompanied by jam and cream, may be included with this course or served separately, even as a first course in some instances in US tearooms. The next course is generally a variety of small sweets such as French macarons, tarts, or fruit-filled pastry bars. The final course might be a light sponge cake or sorbet. Whether seated in a fine hotel, tearoom, or home, the courses should appear at a leisurely pace.

3. Light Tea is a pared-down version of afternoon tea with savory course omitted.

4. Royal Tea is often offered at fine hotels. The four-course afternoon tea is made more regal with the simple addition of a glass of Champagne.

5. High Tea is often misused by venues that like to gild afternoon tea to make it seem exclusive and refined or charge a higher price. Consequently, both consumers and purveyors of tea mistakenly tack the word “high” onto what should be called “afternoon tea.” Historically, high tea was a hearty, simple, sit-down meal that originated during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. High tea was the main meal of the day for workers who returned home very hungry after a long, hard day in the fields, shops, factories, and mines. This evening meal was consumed at a “high” dining table instead of the fancier afternoon teas taken at “low” tables set before sofas and cushioned chairs in parlors and hotel lobbies.

A high tea menu offers hearty and traditional foods such as meat pies, Welsh rarebit, sausage, cold meats, slices of bread, cheese, jam, butter, relishes, desserts, fruits, and tea. Although often confused with afternoon tea, high tea is not a dainty affair; neither is it synonymous with high society. That distinction is critical to know before you ring Claridges in London asking for a reservation for “high tea” at 3 p.m. They will immediately know you are American!