A selection of afternoon tea cakes on a table at The Promenade
Food and drink

The great British tradition of afternoon tea in London

June 30, 2021

There’s nothing Lewis Hunter, our afternoon tea guru at The Dorchester, doesn’t know about good etiquette and hosting an exquisite afternoon tea. Here he shares some history highlights and answers those all important questions like jam or cream first.

Let me be your guide

Afternoon tea at The Dorchester is the definitive experience, full of tradition, celebration and a tremendous amount of cake. As manager of The Promenade, where our famous afternoon tea takes place, I have plenty of fascinating insights to share with you so let’s begin.

Colorful Afternoon Tea Pastries at The Dorchester
The Dorchester, London the promenade

When did afternoon tea become a ritual?

Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, introduced to the wonderful idea of English afternoon tea in around 1840. The duchess would become hungry around 4pm, so she often asked for a tray of tea, bread & butter and cake to be brought to her room. This became a habit of hers and she started inviting friends to join her.  A ‘pause for tea’ soon became a fashionable social event. During the 1880s, society women would change into long gowns, gloves and  ornate hats for their afternoon tea, which was usually served in a formal drawing room between 4 – 5pm.

Setting the table

A perfect afternoon tea isn’t complete without a beautiful table setting. When hosting your own, begin by laying the tablecloth then placing a side plate and napkin in the centre of each place setting, with a knife and fork to the right. The teacup and saucer is traditionally placed in the right-hand corner, with the cup handle at 3 o’clock and the teaspoon pointing to 4 o’clock.

Close up of afternoon tea biscuits at The Dorchester
Some finger sandwiches are the focus of this Afternoon Tea

Choose your tea

Here are just a couple of our favourite teas, which come highly recommended. Firstly, our Royal Breakfast blend, which includes teas selected from the misty hills of Sri Lanka and the lush estates of Assam in India. Its classic and robust flavour is best enjoyed with milk. The Staunton Earl Grey is another classic, discovered in China in the 1700s by George Staunton, an officer in the East India Company. It blends the finest neroli and bergamot oils to create a distinctive Earl Grey with a wonderfully fragrant aroma.

Milk or tea first?

Originally, European teacups were made of soft-paste porcelain, so milk was added first to prevent heat cracking them. Once hard-paste porcelain was discovered, this was no longer necessary and it became a sign of wealth to pour the milk after the tea, to show guests that you had the finest teacups.  For me, adding milk before tea allows the two to infuse better, while adding it after means you can better control the flavour of the tea more.

What’s the best way to eat a scone?

What to spread first is an age-old debate. Whether you prefer it the ‘Devon way’ with cream before jam, or the ‘Cornwall way’ with jam before cream, simply break the scone in half with your fingers and prepare as you desire.

Lemon slice or wedge?

A lemon slice can float in the teacup to enhance the flavour of the tea.  Traditionally, it would also contain a clove in the centre of the lemon slice. When a lemon wedge is served, it’s designed to be squeezed to add just the juice of the lemon to the tea.

Seasonal Afternoon Tea at The Dorchester in London
Tray of finger sandwiches served with champagne for Afternoon Tea at The Dorchester

Finger food

Our sandwiches are immaculately cut into neat rectangles to create what we call ‘finger sandwiches’, meaning you don’t need cutlery to enjoy them. I always like to save my favourite sandwich to last to keep the anticipation going.

A floral touch

We’re famous for our beautiful floral displays at The Promenade, so adding your own colourful blooms would make a lovely touch if you’re hosting your own afternoon tea. Our designer florist, Philip Hammond, says: “Even a few freshly picked stems in bud vases can transform the entire look of the table. Seasonal flowers and colour always work best, and using herbs and other foliage can really bring the simplest of flowers to life.”

The Dorchester, London the promenade

If we’ve tempted you, why not treat someone to an afternoon tea gift card at The Dorchester or take afternoon tea at The Promenade.

Featured hotel

The Dorchester

Welcome to one of the world’s most iconic hotels. Welcome to a place that defines its destination. Welcome to care, to refinement, to whatever your heart desires. Welcome to The Dorchester.


A silver gift box available to buy at The Dorchester shop

The perfect gift

A visit to The Dorchester is an experience that’s best when shared. Discover our selection of afternoon tea, overnight stays and spa days for treating someone special.

Explore gifts & experiences
Back to Dorchester Collection Moments
Food and drink
More like this
Collect issue 28

Collect Magazine

View the latest issue of Collect, our bi-annual magazine featuring a curated mix of culture, art and lifestyle, together with the latest news from Dorchester Collection hotels.