What a London Afternoon Tea Experience Is Really Like (and What to Know)

Classic afternoon tea on the terrace of the St. Ermins Tea Lounge.

Afternoon tea and London have been synonymous since the 19th century. Nowadays, cafes, restaurants, and hotels in London offer the daily custom in both traditional and modern fashions. An utterly English indulgence, a tea service in London can include the basics of finger sandwiches and scones with clotted cream served alongside the tea, to boozy and sweet services that include champagne and a range of desserts. 

The lobby of the St. Ermins Hotel.

I was recently in London and had my first tea experience in the city while staying at the luxurious St. Ermins Hotel in Westminster. Part of the Autograph Collection, the historical hotel (which was once a spy headquarters during WWII) has a lush tree-lined courtyard from its gated entrance that can put you in a calm state after spending the day walk around the city. Upon entering the spacious lobby, visitors can follow the sweeping staircase up to the airy St. Ermins Tea Lounge with its classic, clean ambiance and an outside balcony seating area overlooking the courtyard entrance for the warmer months. While the tea lounge is only open on weekends (a host will meet you at the bottom of the staircase and bring you up), an afternoon tea service can be had in the hotel’s lobby-adjacent library throughout the year. Popular among both guests and locals, an afternoon tea has been designed by St Ermin’s chef, Adam Handling, the award-winning Scottish chef who also has a modern European restaurant at the hotel, called Adam Handling at Caxton.

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The Experience

Upon being seated, you are presented with a diverse and extensive menu of Newby of London teas. While the menu is detailed, the servers are very helpful if you're unsure what to get. After you select the tea, it is then brought out in a beautiful porcelain set along with a sand timer letting you and the server know when it's ready to be poured. Alongside the tea, a glass of champagne is brought out for each guest, which is included with the classic tea service (£29 per person), but visitors can opt for unlimited champagne for £10 more. Also included is a selection of finger sandwiches with savory fillings (including a very interesting pork and black pudding sausage roll), a range of delightful desserts that include strawberry marshmallows, white chocolate with cherry ganache macarons, chocolate and orange éclairs, and a heart of choux with tonka diplomat and strawberry jam. The freshly baked scones with homemade jam and clotted cream are brought out to enjoy with the tea when the sand timer is done. It can be a lot of food and you can feel very full just from looking at the charming open box the sandwiches and desserts are presented in, but you are not expected to just have one tea selection throughout the service. Pick out as many as you’d like during your reservation and they’ll come as soon you’re ready for the next batch. Photos are also allowed during the afternoon tea at the St. Ermin’s -- which is of course wonderful because, well, Instagram.

Tip: With the Queen's 90th Birthday this year, there is also a new Royal Teaservice option influenced by some of the Queen's favorite dishes and to showcase the very best of British ingredients. It starts at £35 per person.

What to Know Beforehand

After experiencing my first London afternoon tea, I felt there was a few things I could’ve done differently. Luckily, from staying in the hotel two nights prior to the tea service, I knew modern casual would work fine, but had I not, looking up the dress code would have been the first thing I would've considered. I also would have made sure to go in with an empty stomach, and I would’ve sampled more teas. While the overall purpose of afternoon tea is to indulgence and relax, there are some ways one can master participating in the tradition. I chatted with tea expert and specialist Kathy YL Chan for her tips on what to know and keep in mind.

On what to know when planning on experience a tea service, Chan agrees with me on going with the empty stomach. “Go hungry. Afternoon tea easily doubles as a meal. Best bet is to eat a late breakfast/early lunch,” she says, suggesting that you should budget two hours at the very least for the event, and never to go to tea in a rush. “There’s no point. Afternoon tea is all about the luxury of unbothered hours in the middle of the day...such decadence!”

“[Also], it's not always about the food,” she adds. “Afternoon tea is fifty percent experience, fifty percent food. The ‘best’ afternoon teas have memorable savories/scones/sweets, but sadly many places just do a decent job of the food itself while offering an amazing atmosphere (or vice versa). Weigh your priorities when picking a venue.” For those who might be confused with the service terminology, she also wanted to clarify that it’s called “afternoon tea” not “high tea." “Many people mix this up. High tea is actually a full-on, working class meal served at the end of the day. People tend to think they're fancy when they call it 'high tea' but they're actually using the wrong terminology.”

Types of Afternoon Tea Services

Afternoon tea at The Milestone Hotel.

"Afternoon tea is a very ritualized event and the principles of any tea services should be the same," says Francois-Xavier Shoeffer, Director of Operations at Café Royal. Shoeffer explains that any type of tea service should include the right equipment (such as a strainer, tea pot, and creamer), perfect service, great quality of food and teas, and a combination of sandwiches, scones, and pastries.

"What will make the difference between a modern and traditional afternoon tea are the choice of teas on top of the expected classics (for example, Oscar or Celestine), the availability of other beverages on the menu (like our Riche cocktails), and most of all, the imagination of the chef to create twists on classics and offer something new and different," Shoeffer adds.

Chan further explains how the afternoon tea service types can be split between traditional and modern. Traditional, she says, should typically include three tiers with savories at the bottom, sweets on the middle tier, and scones on the top tier. “The scones should be delivered later on in the tea, after you finish the savories, so that you can eat them warm. The Goring Hotel in London is a prime example of classic afternoon tea.

Modern, or what doesn’t fit under the traditional model she explains, “Can include teas that are served in courses (for example, Mandarin Oriental New York), or any tea that is themed (like the Madhatters Tea at Sanderson London), or veers away from the traditional offers (such as egg salad sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, smoked salmon sandwiches, currant scones, and lemon tarts). Many places are now starting to offer tea-infused cocktails to go with afternoon tea. Classic alcoholic pairing is very good; I like it on the dry side. Any type of liquid involved that is not champagne, still/sparkling water, or tea, goes into the 'modern' style of afternoon tea."

“No one style of tea is better than the other, but it helps to have categorization so that you know what you're getting into," Chan adds.

Different afternoon tea venues can also have their own different kinds of tea services. Along with St. Ermins' Classic and Royal options, the hotel offers a Gluten Free tea service. Over in Kensington, The Milestone Hotel offers a wide range of tea services as well, including traditional Afternoon Tea, a special Little Prince and Princess Tea tailored for kids (trading tea for milkshakes), and a Gentlemanly Afternoon Tea that is catered towards men and features hot pastries and a flight of ale or whiskey. The Milestone will also soon be launching a new High Tea service, offering a more substantial version of traditional afternoon tea, which mostly features hot food items. 

Tip: Choose between two settings for an Afternoon Tea service, which is served daily at The Milestone. Visitors can opt for the hotel's Park Lounge, for a traditionally British environment with views of the Kensington Palace and Gardens, or the Conservatory, which offers a stylish, modern retreat with an al fresco vibe.

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What to Wear

Tea at Egerton House Hotel.

The attire tends to be “smart casual” at The Milestone, explains a hotel representative. “Of course if you want to dress up for a more royal tea experience, you may do so as well. In the warmer months, you also have the option of having tea on the lawns of Kensington Gardens, which is something to keep in mind,” he adds.

“Keep it simple -- that goes for men and women. Afternoon tea tends to be a colorful affair (think of all the jams/jellies and the sweets), so clothing should enhance but not add to the distraction. I always go to tea in a black dress (length depends on my mood and company),” shares Chan.

Dos and Don'ts

“If you're drinking multiple teas, make sure to start from light to dark,” suggests Chan. “General order should follow white, green, oolong, black, then pu'erh. The only exception is an herbal, which you can finish the tea with. It's nice to end tea on a bright, caffeinated note.”

“People tend to get fixated on the ‘rules’ of tea (for example, pinkies don't need to actually go up -- that's silly and outdated), but when I teach etiquette, my main rules are make sure you don't make a mess, devour your tea in order (savories, scones, and then sweets), and make sure to enjoy yourself,” she says, adding that the tea is a "success" if everyone has a good time.

The Milestone representative adds, “Be open to sampling a little bit of everything, from the savory tea sandwiches to the warm scones, to the incredible desserts. Be sure not to eat much before tea time so that you have enough room to try it all! You are also more than welcome to take away some extra treats that you don’t finish.”

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