Sip, Sip, Hooray: Afternoon Tea Etiquette Explained

afternoon tea etiquette

Afternoon tea is a time to enjoy a variety of teas, scones, sandwiches, and more at a leisurely pace in a serene restaurant setting. Yet, it sounds fussier than it actually is, which may prompt diners to pass on this traditional and delicious mid-afternoon experience. Its reputation is laden with expectations of formality that are mostly undeserved, say food and beverage gurus. Is it still pinkies up? Can you wear jeans or is finery a must? And who gets served first? We’ve got answers to all these queries and more thanks to afternoon tea etiquette tips from the experts. Read on and then find a spot to sip and savor on OpenTable.

Appropriate attire

White gloves — and all the associated finery of yore — are only required for Astor Court butlers who serve savories and sweets, says Astor Court at the St. Regis Atlanta food and beverage director Antonio Palomares, who suggests “afternoon smart casual” attire. At The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona, the hotel is a getaway for many guests, thus “resort casual” clothing is appropriate. However, “some individuals still enjoy dressing up, even including hats and gloves in their attire…but, really, anything from fancy to casual is fine, so long as it’s neat and presentable,” says Lisa Mercer, the property’s food and beverage director.

Is it OK to bring kids?

It’s not only okay to bring little sippers — it’s actually encouraged in most places. “Teatime is a great place to teach children etiquette,” said Joey Worley, director of food & beverage at Le Salon at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans. “The rules are the same for adults and children.” Check on a restaurant’s profile page on OpenTable or message the restaurant to inquire about exceptions, such as alcohol-centric afternoon tea services.

Who and what to serve first

At The Phoenician, every guest gets their own pot of tea, but if sharing, others should be served first before whoever ordered the varietal. Worley suggests a “ladies first” approach, and gradually building up the experience: “Tea is similar to wine in many ways, and just as we’d recommend starting with champagne or lighter white wine before moving on to a heavier red wine, a similar approach works with tea. Drink lighter herbal or green teas before moving on to more robust black teas.”

afternoon tea etiquette


The top do’s…

There are a few, especially when it comes to serving others. “There are three top teatime do’s,” says Palomares. “An elected pourer should handle the teapot, pouring each cup and passing it until everyone has been served. Tea is stirred with a teaspoon in a back and forth motion, not circular, and the teaspoon should be placed lengthways along the back of the saucer. You may now hold the cup by the handle and avoid leaning forward to drink. Take small sips, without slurping, and place down on the saucer between sips. If you’re taking milk, that’s added after the tea is poured; sugar comes last.”

…and the top don’ts

If that all sounds like a mouthful, the top no-go’s that raise eyebrows among etiquette experts are short and sweet: “Don’t cut your scone with your knife—you should break it in two with your hands—and don’t tap your spoon on the side of your teacup,” says Palomares.

Worley says folks should slow it down in the Big Easy. “Don’t be in a hurry. A traditional English-style tea, like the one we serve, is a two-hour experience meant to be a break in your normal routine. And don’t be afraid to try new things. Our tea service ranges from curried chicken salad and truffle lobster to scones and petit fours. Or you can let loose at our Prohibition Tea, where craft cocktails replace tea and are served speakeasy-style in teacups!”    

Must pinkies be up?

“That’s up to you. Here on Canada’s West Coast, teatime tends to be a bit more casual than what you would expect from traditional English tea service,” advises the team at the Dining Room at Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.  It’s a resounding “no” at The Phoenician, where, Mercer says, “The experience should not be pretentious. Guests should just be comfortable and happy.” And Palomares says it’s all about practicality at Astor Court: “We prefer a firm grip on the handle.”

afternoon tea etiquette

Liquor — yay or nay?

Admit it — we all may want to kick it up a notch from time to time, especially when indulging on a girls’ day out. So what’s the story on adding in some spirits? While the St. Regis and Phoenician veer more traditional and recommend pairing tea with Champagne, it’s all about adding wine flights to friend gatherings at Butchart Gardens. At Windsor Court, Worley takes it a bit further. “There are only benefits to adding booze to a tea! It’s all about being comfortable, relaxed, and enjoying yourself. Cocktails with tea also give us a chance to show off mixology trends.”

Tipping point

It’s not your average plated meal, so what’s the appropriate gratuity? “Tea servers are working just as hard as traditional meal servers and have studied diligently to learn the different varieties of teas, the menu, the types of Champagne, etc. So, tip the same as a standard meal,” suggests Mercer.

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C. Dimiti is a true carb addict who can’t resist a good breadbasket, but is just as excited about a good side of Brussels sprouts. She thinks the best restaurants and chefs are those who are inspirational, thus forcing those who keep shoes in their oven for storage to reorganize and try to re-create the magic at home. Shoutout at