10 Tips for Afternoon Tea Etiquette

Photo of afternoon tea treats at the Drake Hotel

There’s something so elegant about the ritual of afternoon tea. Elegant but intimidating.

Maybe it was the six seasons of Downton Abbey or the childhood allure of American Girl doll Samantha Parkington’s elaborate tea set, but I’ve always wanted to indulge in this civilized tradition. So I booked an afternoon tea date at that mecca of old timey Chicago refinement, the Drake Hotel. It was a delightful and inviting experience, and I wanted to share what I learned for other novice tea goers.

What is afternoon tea?

The British didn’t invent tea, but they turned it into a society spectacle. Afternoon tea began when Victorian-era tastemaker Anna, the Duchess of Bedford wanted to stave off those mid-afternoon hunger pangs. She requested a tray of tea, cake, and bread and butter. By the 1840’s several of Anna’s gal pals, including Queen Victoria, were in on the activity. This afternoon nosh soon became a full-blown aristocratic social affair, peaking in the 1920’s.

What about high tea?

“High tea” differs from afternoon tea. It developed as the main, or “high,” meal of the day for working classes. Hearty portions were served around 6 p.m. at a regular dinner table, as opposed to a “low” or coffee table for afternoon tea.

Thus, I exposed my middle-class, Rust Belt roots immediately by shouting out high tea in this Instagram post.

Just a couple Ohio girls invading high tea at @thedrakehotel. #Chicago #GoldCoast

A post shared by Jessica (@urbnexplorer) on

When does afternoon tea take place?

Afternoon tea traditionally kicks off around 3 or 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. However, I attended tea at 11 a.m. in America in lieu of brunch.

What do I wear to afternoon tea?

Part of the fun of tea time is feeling fancy! There are no long gloves and gowns like the old days, but avoid sportswear. The Drake’s listed dress code is “smart casual.”

What is served at high tea?

Tea is fantastic, but the dainty snacks are the star. A tiered tray typically holds an assortment of scones, sandwiches, and sweets. These can include traditional English numbers like cucumber and dill or beef and cheddar or perhaps a modern play on the expected snacks.

Afternoon Tea at the Drake Hotel

Opened in 1920, the Drake Hotel has long been a symbol of lavishness in Chicago. It was a playground for elite guests like Bing Crosby and Charles Lindbergh. Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio even carved their initials into the Cape Code room’s bar as newlyweds. When my companion and I were seated for tea in Palm Court, we joined the ranks of previous Drake tea guests including Hillary Clinton and Princess Diana.

The stately setting featured a mirrored ceiling and fountain dripping in flowers and angels. A harpist added to the graceful atmosphere. We ordered Montagne Bleue and Chai Imperial teas and managed the steeping and straining process without much fumbling. A three-tiered platter arrived bursting with scones, cakes, and sandwiches. Our favorites were the bite-sized roast beef and gherkin sandwiches, seasonal loaf, and caramel petit fours topped with gleaming bits of gold leaf.  We couldn’t get enough of the Devon cream and lemon curd. After devouring the treats at an unladylike pace, you can be damn sure we requested seconds.

Men, women, and even some polite children sipped and chatted away the afternoon around us.The lovely environment and sweet treats make afternoon tea a great location for a special occasion. Despite our lack of experience in tea tradition, we felt totally comfortable and pleasantly full at the Drake.

Image of afternoon tea at Chicago's Drake Hotel

Tips for Afternoon Tea Etiquette

After my visit, I researched the informative and sometimes outrageous conventions behind tea’s traditions. Some tea settings are more discerning than others. Whether you’re at the Ritz or a country tea room, keep these tips in mind at your next tea party.

1. Let the Tea Brew

You’re excited to fill your pretty bone china cup, but don’t jump the gun. The recommended brew time for tea is three to six minutes. Defer to your personal preference if you like it extra weak or strong.

2. Add the Milk Last

There is some weird social caste backstory to this debate, but pouring the tea first allows you to taste it and asses the amount of milk needed. Don’t forget to use a strainer while pouring your tea. Also, you may use milk or lemon but not both unless you want a curdling cup on your hands.

3. Stir Back and Forth

Don’t stir in a circular motion. Instead, move the spoon back and forth as though you were moving to 6 and 12 on a clock face. This avoids clinking, splashing, or cracking the cup. Place your spoon on the saucer when you’re done stirring.

4. No Pinkies Up
It turns out that raised pinkies are not the hallmark of refinement we imagined. To hold the cup, your thumb and index finger should meet in the handle while it rests on your middle finger.  Use your other hand to lift the saucer.

5. Eyes Down Here
You’re finally ready to take a sip of tea! When you do, look in your cup. It’s considered impolite to look over your tea cup while sipping.

Photo of the Palm Court at the Drake Hotel during afternoon tea

6. Eat with Your Hands
An interesting convention given all the other rules.  However, you may need utensils for the fancy cakes. There is absolutely no dunking food into your tea cup.

7. Speaking “Scone”

If you’re at a tea without scones, something is wrong. Yet there’s a wealth of complexity wrapped baked into this snack. For starters, it’s pronounced ‘skon’ and not ‘skone’.  If you mispronounce this, you will be exposed as a phony and escorted from the tea room (results may vary).

8. Jam First, Or Else

To eat your scone, break it in half with your hands. Your next move will address the most hotly debated practice in all of tea time. According to tradition in Devon, you should spread cream on your scone first followed by preserves. However, if you’re in Cornwall you had better spread the jam first and pile their clotted cream on top.

9. Hold on to Your Napkin
Keep your napkin on your lap until you are ready to leave the table. If you must leave the table in the middle of tea, place it on your chair.

10. Don’t Serve Cupcakes

It just isn’t done.

Knowing the rules behind afternoon tea is helpful, but don’t get weighed down by them. If you forget your etiquette lesson, just drink up and have fun!

Photo of the Palm Court entrance at the Drake Hotel

Sources

Afternoon Tea (n.d.). “Afternoon Tea Etiquette. ”

Drake Hotel (n.d). “Dining at Palm Court.”

Grotts, L. M. (2013, October 13). “The History and Etiquette of Afternoon Tea. Retrieved.

Hanson, W. (2015, August 28). “Etiquette Expert William Hanson Explains the Rules of Afternoon Tea.”

1 Comment

  1. Love this! Teatime is alive and well in rural Ireland. The use of the word varies so much by region (and family, etc.), but in rural northern Ireland and Northern Ireland, “tea” is typically earlyish dinner, and “supper” is what you eat later on. So confusing. But there is always actual tea involved 🙂 Thanks for sharing your research and experience! I’ll take notes when I’m back on the Emerald Isle and in London this summer.

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