The World's Top Ten Afternoon Teas: Business Lessons? (Part I)

Part I of II 

After decades of extensive research (and multiple visits, in some cases) and great personal sacrifice to my waistline, it is time to unveil the world’s top ten afternoon teas and business lessons learned from each visit.

You may wonder about my qualifications. I have none. I have, however, painstakingly learned on the job. Although I didn’t grow up with afternoon tea and a silver spoon, I have acquired a fondness for this great British tradition.

How did this tradition get started? There is no better source than “Historic UK” to get the definitive word on the tradition of afternoon tea. By British standards, it's a relatively new tradition. While the custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China, and was popularised in England during the 1660s, it was not until the mid-19th century that the concept of “afternoon tea” first appeared.

Afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon (I sympathize entirely). The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread, butter, and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her.

This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880’s, upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves, and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock.

The Devonshire Cream Tea, specifically, consists of scones, strawberry jam, and the vital ingredient, Devon clotted cream, as well as cups of hot sweet tea served in china teacups. Like James Bond who prefers his martinis shaken and not stirred, the cream (ideally Devonshire) must be clotted and not whipped. Non-clotted is blasphemous.

While the content of afternoon tea varies, it is usually a combination of tiny sandwiches with the crust removed (cucumber, salmon, egg salad), sweets, and the centrepiece: scones with clotted cream and jam. If a place can’t do a decent scone—fresh and flakey—then it’s all downhill from there.

How to do an assessment for a top 10 list? The key factors: the quality of the food (on the obligatory three-tier stand), the ambience, and the service. 

There is an interesting entrepreneurial angle to afternoon tea as well. With its basic concept, venues work hard at differentiation. Many top hotels promote afternoon tea as a unique experience.

The best afternoon tea experiences are heavily weighted toward Asia. It is hard to match the opulence of the hotels and the levels of service. It would be too difficult to rank the options, as they ultimately will be preferred depending upon whether a person wants a grand or cozy experience, a buffet or a more limited selection. Here is the top 10 list in alphabetical order:


 1. Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

The E & O is a small but legendary chain, on the same level of quality as The Peninsula hotels, with spectacular ambience, service, and food. The Eastern & Oriental Hotel exudes a charm that is inimitably its own. Even with the passage of time, this unique pearl at the heart of George Town continues to shine as a testament to the grand elegance of a bygone era. For over 135 years, the hotel has welcomed the world in timeless style. The English afternoon tea is presented at Palm Court, which is secluded and very relaxing.

2. The Empress Hotel, Victoria, BC

The downtown tourist core of Victoria might seem to be more British than the British, epitomized by the Empress Hotel, which prides itself on its high-quality afternoon tea in the elegant Lobby Lounge, an airy space that channels turn-of-the-century elegance with modern refinement. They offer an exclusive selection of premium loose-leaf teas in royal china, a gift from her Majesty in 1939. They have been pouring traditional afternoon tea for 114 years and counting. There are fresh, locally sourced ingredients. The strawberry jam for the freshly baked scones is made in-house from local berries, honey from their own beehives, and lavender from their rooftop garden. The teas are ethically sourced from the top tea producers in the world.

3. Goodwood Park Hotel, Singapore

This is a unique 5-star heritage hotel, with a stately colonial-era ambience, evoking images of Somerset Maugham penning a novel in a wicker chair by the pool. It is a buffet—yes, a buffet!—so you can treat it as an actual lunch. They have an extensive collection of food options served in the lobby (L’Espresso): the bread pudding (the best I have ever had), the scones, the clotted (not whipped) cream, dainty sandwiches, chocolate fondue, and croissants were amazing. The only downside is that the lobby is a bit cramped and can get noisy.