Afternoon Tea vs. High Tea

New on our “Host A Tea” page: this at-a-glance guide to tea menus

Tea Menus [Hint: Afternoon Tea Is What We’re After]

Tea friends, guess what? High tea is a very different meal from afternoon tea, and if you are visiting us at Destination Tea, afternoon tea is the meal you seek! Read on to discover the difference between afternoon tea, high tea, cream tea, royal tea and other tea menus.

The classic three-tiered tray or “curate” on which three courses are served in the afternoon tea meal.

Cream Tea

The traditional Cream Tea menu includes tea, scones, clotted cream and preserves (strawberry is very popular). Very often, lemon curd will also be offered as a scone condiment. More rarely, you may also be served crumpets. Scones are light, buttery biscuits (but note, they are not the same as American biscuits), served hot from the oven. Clotted Cream is an English delicacy, a naturally sweet, rich cream that has thickened (or clotted) at the top after slow-heating full-fat unpasteurized cow’s milk. Lemon curd is a light, spreadable custard flavored with lemon zest and juice. Crumpets are griddle cakes that develop surface holes as they cook, the better to catch melting butter (imagine a cross between an English muffin and a pancake).

“You cannot visit Devon or Cornwall [England] without sampling the famous Cream Tea, with scones, jam, and clotted cream the rich colour of yellow garden roses.”

— Helen Simpson, The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea(New York: Arbor House, 1986).

Afternoon Tea (aka Low Tea)

Afternoon Tea or Low Tea derives its name from how it was originally served: in the late afternoon, on low side tables set by the hostess and guests gathered in the drawing room. At that time, the menu was simple, but by the early 1900s had evolved into a three-course, elaborate affair. Often presented on a three-tier tray called a “curate,” finger sandwiches, scones with spreads (preserves, lemon curd and/or clotted cream) and small desserts are served.

“The general rule is that the earlier tea is served, the lighter the refreshments. At three, tea is usually a snack – dainty finger sandwiches, petits fours, fresh strawberries; at six, it can be a meal – or ‘high’ tea – with sausage rolls, salads and trifle.” 

— Angela Hynes, The Pleasures of Afternoon Tea(Tucson, AZ: H.P. Books, 1987).

Royal Tea (aka Champagne Tea)

Not referring to Darjeeling tea (the “champagne” of teas), a Royal Tea offers a glass of champagne or sherry in addition to the full afternoon tea menu, and sometimes a flower, fresh strawberries or a fourth course, to give the meal an air of festive luxury.

Celebration Tea

A celebration tea is a full afternoon tea menu with the addition of a special occasion cake. The following photo depicts a Royal Celebration Tea.

Celebration Tea at the Ritz in London

High Tea (aka Meat Tea) 

Soup and salad at Jessa's Tea Parlor in Woodstock, GA

Historically served in the evenings, High Tea (named for the high dinner table on which it was customarily served), was a hearty meal including tea, meat, pickled fish, cheese, breads, vegetables, possibly followed by homemade cake or pie for hungry workers returning home from the factories and fields.

Though many American teahouses use “afternoon tea” and “high tea” interchangeably, a high tea is eaten with a fork, knife and spoon, while afternoon tea is the fancy meal of petite finger foods. Some American tea rooms offer a true high tea in the evenings, similar to a prix fixe dinner, serving a set menu with dinner entrée, salad or soup, breads, dessert and of course, tea.

Dim Sum

Literally meaning “point of the heart,” Dim Sum began when Chinese roadside teahouses would offer tea tastings, called “yum cha,” for farmers coming home from the fields. Over time the Cantonese in southern China transformed these tea tastings into family dinners. Modern-day dim sum includes tea, and a variety of small plates offered by servers who tour the dining room with carts of steamed or fried dumplings, vegetables, desserts and other specialties.

Japanese Tea Ceremony (aka Way of Tea) 

At a Japanese Tea Ceremony, a ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha (powdered green tea), is accompanied by light fare and desserts or a full-course meal that can last several hours.

Japanese matcha green tea for ceremony

“Sen Rikyu, the 16th-century tea master who perfected the Way of Tea, said he would become a disciple of the person who could carry out its seven rules without fail:  make a satisfying bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so that the water boils efficiently; provide a sense of warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer; arrange the flowers as though they were in the field; be ready ahead of time; be prepared in case it should rain; act with utmost consideration toward your guests…

The Way of Tea requires creating the proper setting for enjoying that moment with a perfect bowl of tea. Everything that goes into that serving of tea, even the quality of the air and the space where it is served, becomes a part of its flavor. The perfect tea must therefore capture the ‘flavor’ of the moment — the spirit of the season, of the occasion, of the time and the place. The event called ‘chaji’ — a “full tea gathering” — is where this takes place and where the Way of Tea unfolds as an exquisite, singular moment in time shared and savored fully by the participants.”

— Theresa Cheung, Tea Bliss.
(San Francisco: Conari Press, 2007).