How to Turn an Afternoon Coffee Break Into High Tea

It's all about rituals, old and new, in service of an experiential interlude for groups.

Four Seasons Washington DC Afternoon Tea
Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC, offers a boozy take on the traditional afternoon tea.

Coffee is a beverage. Tea, however, is an event. That’s thanks to the British, whose tradition of high tea is known on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for its ritualized sophistication. From formal attire and posh tearooms to ornate china and urbane snacks, tea is an elaborate affair that makes participants feel not only satiated, but also special.

Before afternoon tea was fancy, however, it was functional. The tradition is said to have begun in the mid-19th century with English royal Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford. At that time in England, it was customary to eat only two meals: breakfast and a late dinner, around 8 p.m. A hungry Russell, the story goes, was feeling out of sorts one afternoon and decided to request a pot of tea and a light snack, which she took privately in her bedroom. She continued the ritual -- tea with cakes and sandwiches -- daily and eventually began inviting her socialite friends to join her. They adopted the practice themselves, and soon all of England was socializing over late-afternoon tea with cakes and sandwiches.

What necessitated afternoon tea for society women back then makes tea just as practical for meeting attendees now: Like the former, the latter need a small afternoon meal to help them get over their mid-day energy slump. Although coffee will do the trick, all that pomp and circumstance gives tea an edge in the age of experiential meetings, when meeting performance hinges as much on memorable activities as it does on satisfying refreshments.

In that way, high tea kills two birds with one stone: It provides attendees with fuel, but also gives them something to buzz about -- to each other, and to their friends and colleagues on social media.

Although it sounds great, there’s a catch: Because tea is special, it requires more than just swapping coffee urns for teapots during your standard afternoon break. Instead of speed and convenience, it demands creativity, detail and refinement. Here are five tips that can help you execute on all three:

1. Respect tradition.

The old adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” applies as much to afternoon tea as it does to antique lamps. If you want to plan a successful tea break, you’d be smart to start with the same British traditions that undergird all of the best tea services. The Langham Chicago does exactly that. Although it’s located on the banks of the Chicago River, not the River Thames, it models its tea service -- The Langham Afternoon Tea With Wedgwood -- on that of The Langham, London, which has been offering its traditional afternoon ritual since 1865. The service has everything you’d expect from a typical tea, including a wide variety of blends from which to choose, a selection of both savory and sweet bites, and over-the-top teaware that’s as pretty as it is practical.

2. Set the mood with music.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, consider incorporating experiential elements that will take teatime to the next level -- like live music. Every Saturday, for example, the Palace Hotel in San Francisco hosts afternoon tea in the Garden Court, an ornate restaurant known locally for its opulent chandeliers, glass dome and marble columns. Along with fine tea, seasonal sandwiches and from-scratch scones, the highlight is the live harpist, whose gentle music adds an extra layer of sophistication to the already elegant ambiance.

3. Add a local twist.

High tea may be a British tradition, but most meeting attendees want to experience local flavors when they travel. Thus, one way to modernize the traditional afternoon tea is to give it a local spin. The Waldorf Astoria Atlanta Buckhead, for example, has just launched a new afternoon service that’s curated by executive chef Christophe Truchet, whose take on tea combines British traditions with Southern flavors. Along with traditional scones, for example, Truchet serves buttermilk biscuits. Among the sandwiches is a take on a classic Southern hors d’oeuvre -- the deviled egg. Finally, desserts include Southern sweets like mini peach cobbler, banana pudding, mini red velvet cake, chocolate mud pie and hummingbird cake.

4. Go global.

One way to spice up teatime is with a local interpretation. Another is with a global one. At the Baccarat Hotel in New York, for example, afternoon tea is reimagined “as it might have been enacted in palaces from St. Petersburg to Bangalore,” says the hotel, whose namesake -- French crystal company Baccarat -- has royal roots, having been founded by King Louis XV in 1764. There’s a French take on tea, for instance, with quiche Lorraine, rose madeleines and raspberry macarons; a Russian version features caviar; an English tea will use traditional items like cucumber sandwiches and housemade scones with clotted cream.

5. Spike your tea. 

If you really want to dial up the fun factor on teatime, just add alcohol. That’s what they do at Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC, which reinstated its afternoon tea service in January 2019 after more than a decade. The new offering, called DC Tea (pictured), features unlimited Moët champagne, tea-infused martinis and a live DJ. It’s not just the booze that makes DC Tea special, though. It’s also the presentation: British-born executive chef Andrew Court serves sweet and savory bites inside glass-topped boxes, as if they were precious gems. To hungry tea-goers, that’s exactly what they are.