Three Tiers for Tea

How to host a modern-day tea party
Luckyteapot Groupphoto
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, 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.


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.


Sources: and

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 on Twitter.

Categories: Food + Fun, Parenting, Parties, Things To Do