What Is Afternoon Tea and High Tea?

Deciphering British Tea Time: Menus and History

illustration of the differences between high tea and afternoon tea with pictures of both services

The Spruce Eats / Elnora Turner 

Outside of the United Kingdom, many people refer to afternoon tea as 'high tea.' Although the idea that high tea is a meal of foods like scones and finger sandwiches is common, it is not actually correct in a traditional or historical sense.

What Is Afternoon Tea?

Afternoon tea, also known as 'low tea,' is what most people think of when they hear 'high tea.' It involves things like manners, lace, and dainty foods. It is typically served in the mid-afternoon and it was traditionally served on low tables, hence its two names.

An afternoon tea menu is light and focuses on scones, finger sandwiches. Marmalade, lemon curds, and herbed butter may also be included. Favorite teas for afternoon tea include black teas like Earl Grey and Assam as well as herbal teas like chamomile and mint.

Historically, afternoon tea was considered to be a ladies' social occasion.

steak and kidney pie recipe with tea

The Spruce / Cara Cormack

What Is High Tea?

Traditionally, high tea was a working-class meal served on a high table at the end of the workday, shortly after 5 p.m. High tea was much more of a working-class family meal than it was an elite social gathering.

High Tea Menu

  • Meat dishes such as steak and kidney pie
  • Fish dishes such as pickled salmon
  • Baked goods such as crumpets or, in Ireland, barmbrack
  • Vegetables such as potatoes or onion cakes
  • Other heavy foods such as baked beans and cheesy casseroles
Salmon and Cream Cheese Tea Sandwiches

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

Types of Afternoon Tea Menus

Although many Americans think of afternoon tea as having a set menu, there are many variations on this tea-centric meal.

  • The simplest form of afternoon tea is cream tea -- a meal of tea, scones, and cream.
  • Add fresh strawberries to cream tea and you have ​strawberry tea.
  • If you add more sweets to cream tea, you get light tea.
  • Add savory foods, like finger sandwiches to light tea and you get full tea, which is the elaborate meal most Americans think of when they hear the phrase 'afternoon tea.'

A Brief History of Afternoon Tea

Legend has it that afternoon tea was started in the mid-1800s by the Duchess of Bedford. Around this time, kerosene lamps were introduced in wealthier homes, and eating a late dinner (around 8 or 9 p.m.) became fashionable. This increasingly late dinner was one of only two meals each day, the other was a mid-morning, breakfast-like meal.

The story goes that the Duchess found herself with a "sinking feeling." This was likely fatigue from hunger during the long wait between meals. She decided to invite friends over for assorted snacks and tea, which was a very fashionable drink at the time.

The idea of an afternoon tea gathering spread across high society and became a favorite pastime of ladies of leisure. Later, it spread beyond the highest echelons of society and became more accessible for other socioeconomic groups.

Today, tea is a major component of many British meals, including breakfast, 'elevenses,' afternoon tea, and 'tea' (which is more like traditional high tea than afternoon tea).

Some hotels and tea rooms also offer other variations on afternoon tea, such as champagne tea (afternoon tea served with a glass of champagne) and teddy bear tea (a children's afternoon tea party featuring dolls and teddy bears). In Bath, England, Sally Lunns are a popular addition to afternoon tea.