Is there anything more British than taking afternoon tea? The bespoke patterned china, pretty pots of steaming Earl Grey, and tiers of tiny sandwiches and scones evoke a true sense of tradition.
“At the beginning of the 19th century, Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, invented the meal to fill the time between early luncheon and late dinner, which she felt was the low point of many a country house party,” explains Andrew Pike, general manager of the Milestone Hotel & Residences in London, a go-to for tea service. “Over time, it became surrounded by etiquette and customs: silver teapots, delicate china, cake stands, starched napkins, whether to pour the milk before or after the tea.”
High tea hit its peak in the days of the British Empire, when the sahib and his family, having taken early luncheon, would wait until the cool of late evening for dinner. “Afternoon tea once again filled the gap for colonials posted in India, and when they returned home, they brought the ceremony back with them,” Pike notes. “It was at this point that fashionable hotels took to serving traditional afternoon and Devonshire cream teas.”
But high tea is not just a quick cuppa. “We love any excuse to turn something into a celebration,” says Pike, adding that there’s a type of tea for every time of day. And now the tradition is getting a spirited update, with bubbly Champagne and custom cocktails making the formal affair a bit more festive.
At Pike’s five-star Milestone Hotel & Residences, which sits opposite Kensington Palace and Gardens, tea is taken in the Park Lounge by the roaring fireplace. There’s no finer accompaniment to the service than the Mrs. T’ea, made with vodka, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, housemade verbena syrup, lime, orange essential oils and an Earl Grey reduction.
The Palm Court at the Balmoral in Edinburgh, Scotland, is another ideal spot for savoring tea and tipples. The grand palm-flecked room boasts a live harpist to serenade guests during the ceremony, which features Champagne and a variety of classic cocktails. And because it’s Scotland, there’s a smoky take on tea plus plenty of options for an afternoon dram.
Cliveden House in the English countryside pays homage to the year the property was built with its Cliveden ’66 Traditional Afternoon Tea. Savory sandwiches, scones with Cornish clotted cream and housemade strawberry jam, and a smattering of almost-too-pretty-to-eat cakes are served alongside the Cliveden ’66 cocktail, made with Chase vodka, Grand Marnier, Champagne, rose liqueur and a dusting of 24-karat gold flakes.
And just a stone’s throw away back in London, smart cocktail bar Dandelyan long offered its own take on the tradition. The Wyld Tea served drinks like a passionfruit and sea buckthorn gin cocktail and a plum, peach, elderflower and Champagne concoction alongside fare like curaçao smoked duck with miso and Parmesan croute as well as pastrami sandwiches made with IPA relish and spelt bread. Much to devotees’ dismay, the acclaimed bar shuttered earlier this year to make way for a new concept, but the unique menu helped usher in an entirely new breed of afternoon refreshments. And to that, we can raise a glass — or rather, a teacup.