Here's why afternoon tea is officially the new happy hour

A hallmark of British cuisine, afternoon tea has increased in popularity in the U.S. following the pandemic

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published January 6, 2024 12:00PM (EST)

Four women are sitting together enjoying afternoon tea. (Getty Images/DGLimages)
Four women are sitting together enjoying afternoon tea. (Getty Images/DGLimages)

In 2022, Pinterest Predicts, an annual report looking into growing trends on the social media platform, announced that “afternoon tea is the new happy hour.” The famed pastime, which is steeped (pun intended) in English tradition, had garnered widespread fascination across the United States — amongst both younger and older generations.

According to Pinterest data published at the time, searches for vintage tea parties were up by 70%. An online survey, consisting of 444 million Pinterest users worldwide, also found that many preferred getting “tea with a friend” over “drinks after work.”  

“In 2022, people will choose Darjeeling with a friend over drinks after work,” the report outlined. “Afternoon tea is more than a meal — it’s a moment, an aesthetic, a pose. Searches for ‘tea party aesthetic’ and ‘drinking tea pose’ are climbing across all age groups.”

Today, afternoon tea remains a popular affair that’s beloved for its inherent Instagramability. On Instagram, the hashtag #afternoontea revealed a whopping 7.1 million posts, compared to 6.2 million in 2022. Many afternoon teas are hosted in distinctive locations, like swanky five-star hotels and historic inns complete with sprawling gardens and beautiful architecture. There’s Washington D.C.’s Seasons Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel, where guests can enjoy an assortment of fancy pastries fit for Buckingham Palace, an Earl Grey fruit cake (a Prince Philip favorite!) and petit fours. There’s also the French Room at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, which touts a three-course menu of tea sandwiches, caviar and more; Le Salon at the The Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, where attendees can feast to the serenade of harpists and pianists; and the Raleigh Room in The Historic Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach, where esteemed guests like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, and Judy Garland once dined.

Afternoon teas also offer an opportunity to get dressed up. To attend tea at The Ritz-Carlton, men are expected to wear a jacket and tie, while women have more freedom to choose their outfit, whether that’s a dress or a matching pantsuit (just no sneakers, shorts, sportswear or jeans). Places like The Savoy, the Willard Hotel and Waldorf Astoria are less strict on dress codes, but still ask their guests to arrive in smart casual attire.

“Afternoon tea isn't just a chance to sip on a hot beverage,” Alana Peters of the Historic Cavalier Hotel told Southern Living. “It's very much an experience.”

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It’s also an inclusive affair, allowing people of all ages to partake in the joys of sipping on a warm beverage and savoring scones and sandwiches galore. For those who don’t drink or are vowing to go sober (especially during Dry January), afternoon tea still awards them a sense of celebration in a sociable atmosphere. A 2023 Gallup analysis found that the percentage of young adults who say they drink has declined 10 points over the past two decades. The Tea Association of the USA also noted that more than 87 percent of Millennials drink tea.

In the wake of the pandemic, several teahouses, tea cafes and afternoon tea rooms were forced to shut down. Specifically, more than 11 percent of afternoon teas in the United States closed amid COVID’s peak, Angela Renals, the founder of Destination Tea, an online directory for all things afternoon tea, told The Boston Globe. Many tea spots, however, made their comeback in 2022. As of 2023, 76 new afternoon tea rooms opened up nationwide, Renals said, thus proving that the business is here to stay.

A huge part of afternoon tea’s ongoing success can also be attributed to a greater desire for experiential dining — dining that’s unique and unlike “traditional” restaurant experiences. Yelp’s June 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry Report revealed that experience-focused dining is “seeing a pop in new business openings as people look to find more unique dining options when they do go out.” Yelp saw growth in dining experiences like conveyor belt sushi (which was up 500%, compared to January – April 2021), supper clubs (which was up 200%), and themed cafes (which was up 75%). 

That’s all to say that the future of afternoon tea looks promising – and one that's inherently social like happy hour. With the new sober boom, this allows friends to eat, chat and drink – all without alcohol. It’s an experience for the senses — and certainly one for the camera too. If you’re planning on attending your first afternoon tea this year, there are a few things to be mindful about. First, be sure to stir your tea gently — splishing & splashing or clinking are absolute no-nos. And second, whatever you do, please don’t mistake your tea for high tea!

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon, covering Culture and Food. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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Afternoon Tea British Happy Hour Instagram Pastries Pinterest Reporting Tea