Your Guide to Hosting a Modern Afternoon Tea Party

Take this traditional meal from stuffy to chic with these easy upgrades.

modern afternoon tea

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The afternoon teas of Bridgerton and Jane Austen are famous for their strict rules and restrained behavior—as well as their tiny sandwiches—but this nearly 200-year-old tradition still has its place in modern entertaining. Whether you're opting for tiny lobster rolls at a New England bridal shower tea or charming prints at an art-themed afternoon event, put a unique and personal twist on the custom with these expert etiquette and party-planning tips.

What Exactly Is Afternoon Tea?

Social teas come in two formats, says etiquette expert Myka Meier: high tea and afternoon tea. A high tea menu typically includes a more filling meal of a meat, starch, and vegetable, and is served in the later afternoon and into the evening, while afternoon tea is a lighter—but still formal—three-course meal served between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Timing and Courses

"Afternoon tea is served year round, and is a social pastime and meal that is supposed to quench hunger and thirst in between lunch and supper," says Meier. "It usually consists of a pot of loose leaf tea, sandwiches, scones and desserts. All courses are served at once, but the meal is enjoyed in that order—savory to sweet."

The meal can be held anywhere—a hotel, home, restaurant, indoors or out—and the timing has become increasingly flexible. "In more modern times, people are offering it earlier and making it a more all day affair, with many establishments serving it from noon to 5 p.m.," Meier says.


Afternoon tea has its own long-held behavior and hosting rules, too. "From how to hold your teacup"—pinkies in!—"to who is served first (the host serves themself last), there is quite a bit of etiquette involved with hosting or attending an afternoon tea," says Meier, who offers a complete etiquette course just on afternoon tea.

This tradition may sound enticingly charming—or overly stuffy, depending on your point of view—but it's not so different from your after-work cocktail. "I equate afternoon tea to be a more refined version of going out to drinks or to happy hour," says event planner Summer Newman. "All of these events are popular because they are a way for us to socialize. It's a time where we drink, eat, chat, gossip, and interact with our friends, family, and peers."

Modernizing the Afternoon Tea Party Tradition

Like other traditional events that have adjusted over time—from weddings to coronations—afternoon tea can be modified to create an event that fits your vision. "The traditional tea is to ballet as a modern tea is to modern dance: Both are equally unique and loved in their own right, but different in that one is refined and the other pushes the boundaries," says Newman. "I would say a modern tea is personal. You take the things you love about a traditional afternoon tea and make it your own. I know high society might cringe at this, but go ahead and put your pinkies out!"

However you decide to customize your event with the ideas below, Meier suggests keeping two things standard: calling it afternoon tea instead of high tea and serving three courses. "I recommend keeping it to a sandwich course, scone course, and dessert course; otherwise, it becomes more of tea with a sandwich, or tea with a cake, and not that customary meal we all know and love," she says.

Update the Menu

Classic tea sandwiches are known for their crustless edges and delicate fillings, like egg salad, cucumber, or coronation chicken, says Meier. But as long as you stick to small bites, you can get creative. "In modern times, you can play with the menu a bit and include items such as little mini quiches, mini stuffed bagels, or even lobster salad in small brioche buns," says Meier.

Newman also recommends thinking outside the bread box. "With so many fun flavors coming from so many cultures, we can definitely spice up afternoon tea with miniature tacos, lobster jalapeño empanadas, sarma, or mini Belgian waffles with your choice of toppings," she says. Spiked desserts are another welcome change: "Adult them up and add your favorite liquor, like truffles with Baileys, Moscow Mule miniature cakes, or baked apples in white wine," says Newman.

Change the Dress Code

Afternoon tea was traditionally a formal affair, though the dress code has relaxed for most situations. "Back in the day, you would be dressed to the nines to go to afternoon tea, however, in modern times, gloves and hats are rare unless it's on the invitation or for a garden tea party," says Meier. The formality can also vary by region. "In California, good luck getting the locals to dress in beautiful cocktail dresses and nice suits," says Newman. "It’s more relaxed, like sundresses and linen pants with an untucked shirt." (Not too relaxed, though: Jeans and sneakers are often barred from afternoon tea at most hotels and venues.)

 Still, afternoon tea offers a prime opportunity for dressing your best—Victorian gowns not required. "Because I don't shy away from tradition, and love fashion, I strongly recommend getting dressed up for a tea party," says Newman. “The formal, sleek cocktail dress, or the elegant pant suit with asymmetrical elements, or the masculine skirt for the guys: There is just so much variety today that I see no reason to not dress formal and cool at the same time.”

Expand the Drink Options

One constant of afternoon tea is that it should always include, well, tea. "I love a traditional tea, and honestly don't see anything wrong with keeping this the same," says Newman. While the original concept for afternoon tea included only black tea, like Earl Grey or English Breakfast, modern hosts include green tea, oolong tea, and herbal blends, says Meier. They also might add a cocktail or sparkling beverage for the over-21 set. "Traditional afternoon tea is without alcohol, but many modern teas include a glass of bubbles or wine for those of age to drink, too!" says Meier.

Elevate the Aesthetic

If you're envisioning an aesthetic of old-fashioned plates and cups, dated prints, and uncomfortable chairs, Newman recommends updating your idea of setting the table for afternoon tea. "I love prints and they are a fun way to dress up any table," she says. "I would challenge tea party hosts to up their game on the teacup—it's great to break out the formal china, but maybe add some modern flair with modern cups." Source modern dinnerware to complement older pieces, and display your food on unexpected stands and servers. "You can use anything, from unique jewelry boxes, fun shadow boxes, and colorful platters to fun decanters for water or cool stands," says Newman.

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