Spilling the Tea on Afternoon Teas

The tradition of afternoon tea first appeared in the 17th century by the French — more specifically in Paris in 1637 — which was twenty-two years before it was introduced in England.1 It was widely popular amongst the aristocrats and royals. According to an article from the New York Times archives, “Afternoon tea is certainly one of the most civilized forms of entertaining, and it is heartily recommended for Sunday afternoon.”2

In the 1920s, afternoon tea made its way to America. Tea became popular amongst the women in America as many dining rooms in the 1900s had excluded women, meaning that the development of female-friendly tea rooms drew a lot of business. According to one article, “The independent American tea room gave women entrée into the restaurant industry, both as proprietresses and patronesses.”3

Specifically, the popularity of tea rooms peaked after the enactment of Prohibition; now that bars were no longer available, people looked for an alternative to socialize and drink.4 “The afternoon tea in New York City was once a province of buttoned-up hotels on the Upper East Side, catering mostly to Anglophiles who saw the custom, replete with its tiny sandwiches and ceremony, as their civilized pleasure.”5 The way people flocked to these establishments highlights how easily having afternoon tea could gain a large following outside of the original aristocratic and upper-class patronage.

Hotel Manhattan
“Hotel Manhattan, New York.” The Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/item/2016799727/.

Located in Manhattan, New York City, on the corner of Madison Avenue & 42nd Street, Hotel Manhattan was one of the many New York City hotels that served afternoon teas in their dining area. The hotel is said to have been “one of the fashionable hotels” which attracted diners out to enjoy “both in cuisine and decorations.”6 The hotel’s main dining room was “a very extensive and luxurious apartment” that occupied the entire Madison Avenue side of the hotel.7 The dining area conveyed an effect of “richness and magnificence with its dark furniture and furnishings, its tapestried walls and beautifully decorated ceilings. The room [would comfortably] seat over three hundred guests.”8 Moreover, the cuisine of Hotel Manhattan was “above criticism” and “the service — a la carte exclusively — is unexcelled, and the prices are such as obtain in the best restaurants.”9

Afternoon teas, also known as high teas, are considered more of a “tea-meal.” In American tea rooms, tea is accompanied by a lunch-like meal typically served around 4:00 p.m.. Most high teas have three courses. The first round of food includes the following: toasts, muffins, scones, fruit, etc.. The second round consists of meat sandwiches and more savory dishes. Lastly, the third round includes various cakes, sponges, treats, and sweet delicacies. In “Civilities of Afternoon Tea,” Craig Claiborne states, “In addition to piping hot cups of tea, it may include several kinds of cakes, a pastry such as brandy snaps filled with whipped cream, scones or crumpets with jam and thing sandwiches with such fillings as cress or cucumbers. The sandwich platters will inevitably be sprinkled with delicate sprays of mustard cress, a peppery and miniature version of watercress.”10

Following the style of a typical afternoon tea, Hotel Manhattan’s Afternoon Tea Menu of June 1920 included an array of various teas, coffee, and chocolate. Its menu served soups such as green turtle, gumbo, and clam broth. It also had multiple fruit jams, marmalades, and creams to accompany the toasts, English muffins, and brioches.

The second course of Hotel Manhattan’s Afternoon Tea menu included multiple sandwich creations: Foie-gras – fatty liver of duck/goose; Club – cooked poultry, ham or fried bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise; the Windsor – pineapple slices, cheddar cheese, turkey, lettuce, chutney on bread; Chicken; and Tongue.

The last round included an array of small delicious desserts and an assortment of cakes, such as pound cake, fruit cake, and old-fashioned strawberry shortcake. They also served ladyfingers, a British sweet sponge biscuit in the shape of a finger, and macaroons, a mixture of shredded coconut, egg whites, & sugar. 

Ice cream and parfaits, such as the Manhattan Parfait and Chestnut Parfait, were also dessert course components. The flavors included chocolate, sherbet, and vanilla topped with your choice of Strawberry Melba — a blend of strawberries and raspberries or an Excelsior Biscuit Glace. Another dessert called the Coupe Favorite — an ice-cream dessert usually served with fruit and a sauce —was on the menu as well. 

Afternoon teas are still prevalent to this day. My mom and I take part in the tradition every year, usually around Christmas time. In the past, we have gone to the Roosevelt Hotel Christmas Tea, Windsor Court Holiday Afternoon Tea, and Salon by Sucre’s Mardi Gras and Holiday Afternoon Tea. We wear fancy attire, usually a dress and heels, and typically invite my Grandma, my girl cousins, and my aunts to attend the teas with us. The whole experience is very grand; you feel like a royal. The hotel’s dining area is always decorated extravagantly with an arrangement of lounge chairs, couches, low tables, as well as standard dining chairs and tables. I often find myself acting more refined and dainty than usual.

Once you sit down, a server takes you through the wide range of tea offerings and cocktails. Next, the server brings out our selected teas with an accompaniment of scones, biscuits, and jams. Then, a server brings a course of mini sandwiches and savory bites. Lastly is the dessert course, which is my favorite part of the tea. A server brings out a platter of mini cakes, sweet, delicate desserts, and cookies. My favorite dessert is always the ladyfingers. The afternoon tea lasts around two to three hours, and it reminds me of the meals I had in Italy where you savor every dish and are not rushed to leave. It truly is a royal experience and that, for a few hours, can take you back in time.


Originally Published: December 10th, 2020 || Last Updated: May 28th, 2022

A part of Doc Studio’s History of Food in America Collection


  1. Stradley, Linda. “Afternoon and High Tea History.” What’s Cooking America, 5 Apr. 2017, whatscookingamerica.net/History/HighTeaHistory.htm. 
  2. Claiborne, Craig. “The Civilities of Afternoon Tea; The Civilities of Tea (Cont.).” The New York Times, 28 Feb. 1960, http://www.nytimes.com/1960/02/28/archives/the-civilities-of-afternoon-tea-the-civilities-of-tea-cont.html. 
  3.  Voyageuse, DestinationTea Tea, et al. “The Rise of the American Tea Room: Serving Women’s Rights with a Cup of Tea.” Destination Tea, 20 Sept. 2019, destinationtea.com/the-rise-of-the-american-tea-room-serving-womens-rights-with-a-cup-of-tea/.
  4.  Ibid.
  5.  Asimov, Eric. “So You Thought Tea Was Just a Bag In Some Hot Water.” The New York Times, 10 Jan. 1996, http://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/10/garden/so-you-thought-tea-was-just-a-bag-in-some-hot-water.html.
  6. Where and How to Dine in New York: the Principal Hotels, Restaurants and cafés of Various Kinds and Nationalities Which Have Added to the Gastronomic Fame of New York and Its Suburbs. Lewis, Scribner & Co., 1903.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.

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