Americans tend to use the terms "afternoon tea" and "high tea" interchangeably. However, in the world of tea and European history, they refer to two distinct traditions. Read on to explore the fascinating origins of high tea vs. low tea and learn about their modern interpretations.
Low tea: The "real" afternoon tea
Traditional afternoon tea, also known as "low tea," refers to the setting in which it was served – on low tables, often resembling coffee or side tables, typically found in formal sitting/drawing rooms. This genteel custom emerged in aristocratic circles when the mid-day meal (i.e. lunch), was just a light bite served around noon followed by a late dinner.
Contrary to the laid back image that the term conjures, “low tea” was far from a humble or low-class affair. Rather, low tea is what we see on shows like Bridgerton or Downton Abbey– impeccably dressed ladies of leisure, flaunting the latest fashions, proper etiquette, and dainty menu items served on fine china.
Originally served around 3 or 4 p.m., low tea/afternoon tea today has evolved in several ways to meet modern society’s standards and consumption habits. However, it remains synonymous with luxury, refinement, and even a touch of frivolity. Traditional afternoon tea is generally not served in private homes. Instead, it’s more commonly enjoyed in posh hotels, tea rooms, and salons to mark special occasions.
High tea: A hearty affair for the working class
Similar to low tea, high tea also earned its name from the tables on which it was served –in this case, high tables, like dining tables or counters. Despite its grand-sounding name, "high tea," which was also called “meat tea,” was traditionally considered a meal for the working classes.
Unlike leisurely and precious bites served at low tea, high tea was a more substantial meal served in the early evening immediately following work. It often featuring satisfying comfort foods involving satisfying entrees like Cornish pasties and shepherd's pie.
High tea today:
Strictly speaking, high tea today is akin to a light dinner, only served with tea. According to Brigit’s Bakery, lots of Brits simply call the meal they have around dinner "tea" and don't use the word "high" at all. In clarifying the meaning of high tea, This Daily Meal article makes the analogy:
If you get home from work one evening and you're starving and start heavy snacking with a little salad and even a cookie, add a cup of Earl Grey and suddenly you're not snacking before dinner — you're observing a time-honored British tradition.
Afternoon tea menu & presentation
While there is no set menu, afternoon tea is usually a visual and culinary delight that harkens back to the original tradition. As the image implies, the typical menu consists of three courses, separated by the tiers on a 3-Tier Tray.
On the bottom is the savory first course with dainty tea sandwiches cut into bite-sized, crust-less morsels. Next comes scones with clotted cream and jam followed by petite cakes or petit fours.
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Afternoon tea today: Blending high tea vs. low tea
Establishments serving afternoon tea today have taken creativity to new heights, blending elements of high tea and low tea plus adding their own unique twists. Multi-course menus have evolved to cater to diverse tastes and appetites; Unique presentations abound, blurring the lines between the two traditions, in settings that range from cozy and casual to formal with strict dress codes.
Here are just a few examples of this blending:
Afternoon tea at Brooklyn High Low in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
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Afternoon tea at The Ritz in London
Afternoon tea setup at The Whitby Bar (The Whitby Hotel, NYC)
Tea time at Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon (NYC)
Tea time with a hanging tiered stand at The Orchid Lounge (Pan Pacific London)
Thanks to these creative and ever-evolving approaches to and interpretations of afternoon tea, we believe this classic tradition will endure for generations to come.