Three Tiers for Tea

How to host a modern-day tea party


Published:

Photo courtesy of The Lucky Teapot

The Mad Hatter from “Alice in Wonderland” might be your family’s earliest tea party reference, but the tradition of taking afternoon tea dates back to 1840 in England when Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, started enjoying afternoon tea and a snack to tide her over between lunch and dinner. The duchess later invited friends to join her for afternoon tea, and it became the fashionable thing to do.

When Queen Victoria — who reigned over England from 1837 through 1901 — adopted the tradition, it became a formal event. Afternoon tea was typically served at 4 p.m., along with a variety of finger foods like crustless tea sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and preserves, and small cakes and sweets. These goodies were served on multi-tiered stands alongside Ceylon tea poured from teapots into dainty china cups, according to Historic-UK.com, a website dedicated to publicizing the history and heritage of Britain.

This sophisticated ceremony has made its way into luxury hotels and private homes, too. “The popularity of tea has [grown] exponentially over the years, spurred by studies touting tea's health effects, but also because of increased interest and understanding of the sophisticated and enjoyable experience of a proper British high tea service,” says Sonya Ann Pratt, owner of The Lucky Teapot Traveling Tea Parties, a Triangle-based company that plans events such as tea party-themed bridal showers and Mad Hatter-themed kids’ parties.

Today’s tea parties are less formal, but the spirit of taking tea among the company of friends makes for a fun and festive way to celebrate special occasions like birthdays or Mother’s Day. Here’s our step-by-step guide for hosting a modern-day tea party in your home.



Photo courtesy of The Carolina Inn


Choose a Theme

You can adapt an English-style afternoon tea to the occasion and age group. Popular kids’ birthday party themes incorporate teddy bears (ask guests to bring their favorite plush toy), fairy-tale princesses and/or princes, or favorite characters, like Peppa Pig. For tweens’ birthdays or family-centric special occasions, try a “Springtime in Paris” or “Alice in Wonderland” motif. The theme you choose can characterize the invitations, menu and decorations. Pinterest is also great resource for creative ideas.


Send Out Invitations

Sending invitations by regular mail makes for a traditional touch, but digital delivery via Evite or Facebook is an acceptable modern alternative. In addition to including the date, time and location, introduce your theme and details regarding the dress code. To respect the formality of afternoon tea and highlight the fact that it’s a special occasion, encourage guests to wear floral dresses, or sweater vests and a button-down shirt. Guests can accessorize with a festive headband, string of beads or bowtie.


Make a Menu

A traditional menu consists of two- or three-tiered platters with tea sandwiches, savory and sweet items, and baskets or plates of scones.

  • Tea sandwiches: Uphold tradition by serving crustless tea sandwiches with fillings like cucumber and cream cheese or smoked salmon for adults, and PB&J or pimento cheese for kids. Take a more modern approach with sweet fillings inspired by local hotels’ afternoon tea service — like Nutella and fresh raspberries at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club in Durham, turkey and fig preserves at The Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, or cookie butter and roasted pear at The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary.
  • Savories and sweets: Round out your spread with savory finger foods like mini quiches, cheese on crackers and deviled eggs; and sweets like French macarons, mini cupcakes or chocolate truffles. (Trader Joe’s frozen foods section offers a great selection of frozen appetizers, pastries and sweet treats that can easily be prepared or thawed before teatime.)
  • Scones: Scones with clotted cream and jam are essential to afternoon tea, but you can sub in butter or cream cheese for clotted cream (bring butter to room temperature before serving or opt for easy-to-spread whipped cream cheese). Serve scones with a variety of jams and preserves. Letting kids experiment with different toppings is half the fun. If you can’t find scones or want to provide a more familiar option, Pratt suggests buying fruit tarts or sponge cakes and cutting them into small pieces.

Accommodate guests on a gluten-free diet by using cucumber slices or lettuce cups for sandwich fillings. Include a few vegetarian sandwich options and serve a few nut-free desserts, suggests Taylor Weber, restaurant manager at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club’s Fairview Dining Room, which serves afternoon tea Wednesday through Sunday.


Photo courtesy of The Lucky Teapot


Select Beverages

A traditional tea service might include English breakfast or Earl Grey tea with milk and lemon, but you can also offer kid-friendly flavors like peach or vanilla, or serve a tea-infused punch.  The Fearrington Inn in Pittsboro, which serves afternoon tea Wednesday through Sunday from 2 to 3:45 p.m., offers a variety of teas, including hot cinnamon and Irish breakfast. Other kid-friendly options include pink lemonade, apple cider and hot chocolate, which are served at The Carolina Inn’s Little Prince and Princess Tea for ages 4-12 as part of the afternoon tea taking place there Thursday through Sunday from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.


Set the Table

To recreate the tradition of afternoon tea, The Umstead Hotel and Spa, which serves afternoon tea Wednesday through Sunday from 2 to 3:30 p.m., relies on presentation. Marketing manager Caroline Jackson-Allen suggests using a tablecloth and creating proper place settings.

  • Each setting should include a plate, teacup and saucer, teaspoon, knife, fork and napkin. If your guests are on the younger side, opt for floral, striped or patterned plates and cups.
  • Steep tea in teapots and serve from those, ideally into china teacups.
  • If you don’t have teacups on hand, find them at vintage or antique shops, or ask guests to bring their own.
  • Serving food on two- or three-tiered serving stands is tradition, but consider using cake stands or platters to make it easier for small hands to navigate the spread. If you’re anticipating a large crowd, set up a buffet so guests can easily help themselves.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LUCKY TEAPOT


Add Finishing Touches

Fancy doesn’t have to mean fussy — or expensive. Create a festive ambiance with a few do-it-yourself decor strategies by repurposing what you already have at home:

  • Create a centerpiece with fresh flowers from your yard.
  • Use leftover card stock to make placemats or place cards.
  • Repurpose fabric store remnants into a table runner or tablecloth.

Plan Party Games

Part of the appeal of an afternoon tea is relaxing and enjoying good conversation, but young ones may get restless. Organize hands-on activities like decorating sugar cookies (opt for tea- or floral-themed cookie cutters), crafting paper flowers or crowns, or making floral arrangements with paper flowers or fresh blooms in small Mason jars (this also makes a great portable favor). 


Offer Favors

If you’re hosting a birthday tea party, send guests home with crowns, necklaces and bowties, which can double as part of a place setting and take-home favor. Or send guests home with a box of tea in a decorative tin, or a small gift bag filled with seasonal favors.



PHOTO OF TEA AT THE WASHINGTON DUKE INN'S FAIRVIEW DINING ROOM courtesy of MORTON PHOTOGRAPHY


Sources: afternoontoremember.com and all-about-afternoon-tea.com/tea-party-etiquette.html.


Layla Khoury-Hanold is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Food Network, Saveur and Refinery29; and in Raleigh Magazine, The News & Observer and INDY Week. Learn more about her at glassofrose.blogspot.com, @glassofrose on Twitter.

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Enjoy the museum's annual celebration of flowers. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $13/members and $18/nonmembers. Free for ages 6 and younger

Where:
North Carolina Museum of Art
2110 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Telephone: 919-839-6262
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Do you love owls? If so, join us to learn all about them! Discover these amazing raptors' adaptations and why they are important to the ecosystem. We will be practicing our different owl calls and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Enjoy spring open house featuring seven model homes on the tour, as well as kite-flying demonstration by seasoned professionals. Start your tour at the information center, and get ready for...

Cost: Free

Where:
Briar Chapel Information Center
1342 Briar Chapel Parkway
Chapel Hill, NC  27516
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Sponsor: Newland Communities
Telephone: 888-249-9429
Contact Name: Cherith Andes
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Want to get inside Historic Yates Mill? Join us for a half-hour tour (starting at 1, 1:30, 2, 2:30 or 3 p.m.) to view the main power drive and milling machinery while exploring the mill's history...

Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60+), $3/Child (ages 7-16), kids ages 6 & under: free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Ziggy is a shy boy who would rather stay at home and watch television than explore the island of Jamaica. Over the course of his onstage journey, with some help from his friend Nansi, he...

Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Harris Lake County Park is home to several species of salamanders. Join us as we learn about these elusive amphibians and see some up close. All ages. Meet in the Educational Garden at the picnic...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist...

Cost: $25 and up

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Durham Stake presents a family-friendly show featuring favorite Dr. Seuss books all together in one story. Join the Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, and many others on a journey through...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
1050 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Sponsor: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Contact Name: Bethany Fager
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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is putting on the hilarious, yet sometimes tender, musical production of Seussical on March 15-16 and 22-23. It is a family-friendly show that...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
1050 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Sponsor: Durham Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
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The Raleigh Boychoir will reach new heights as our choristers and community present Dr. Tim Sharp’s “High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass.” Welcoming area boys to perform in...

Cost: Free

Where:
First Baptist Church
99 N Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Raleigh Boychoir
Telephone: 919-881-9259
Contact Name: Erin O'Hara
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Ziggy is a shy boy who would rather stay at home and watch television than explore the island of Jamaica. Over the course of his onstage journey, with some help from his friend Nansi, he...

Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Participants develop their naturalist skills and understanding of local nature. Ages 5-8 with parent. Register online. Choose course #121675.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Celtic Woman celebrates Ireland's rich musical and cultural heritage, while continuing its remarkable legacy of introducing some of Ireland's most talented singers and musicians onto the...

Cost: $43 and up

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist...

Cost: $25 and up

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Shop for gently used kids' clothing, toys, furniture, baby equipment and more. See the website for shopping hours.

Cost: Free

Where:
Hayes Barton Baptist Church
1800 Glenwood Ave.
Raleigh, NC
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Annual Guides

Education Guide

The 2018-19 Education Guide offers 678 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools, academic resources and an Exceptional Child special section.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. Plus, find out who our 2018 Readers' Favorites are.