/ Food & Drink

The cost of afternoon tea – high tea or highway robbery?

Recently, there’s been a huge surge in the popularity of afternoon tea in the UK. But top of the range teas can now cost up to £85 a person in some London hotels…

Can the swanky surroundings and silver service really justify such an enormous mark-up on the price of a cuppa and a few cakes?

The British cup of tea has always been a great leveller, enjoyed with equal gusto up and down the country, and by everyone from builders to barristers.

But put the words ‘high’ or ‘afternoon’ before tea and it becomes a completely different concept. With its delicate pastries, silver platters and cucumber sandwiches, tea becomes the preserve of the posh. And it’s served up with an equally posh price-tag.

Tea pricing has scone mad

Winners of the 2012 Tea Guild Awards, announced last week, include Pennyhill Park Hotel and Spa in Surrey, where teas range from £28 to £45, and Betty’s Tea Rooms in Northallerton, Yorkshire, where an afternoon tea will set you back up to £32.95.

But it’s the London hotels that really take the biscuit, or even the hand-crafted Jubilee scone with Somerset clotted cream. Afternoon teas at the sought-after Ritz, where it’s advisable to book months in advance, start at £42, rising to £64 if you fancy a little fizz with your tea.

And the prize for most expensive tea in London? Step forward The Lanesborough, which offers an £85 afternoon tea, albeit accompanied by a glass of Prestige Krug Champagne.

Are luxury teas superior to the supermarket?

Now I understand you’re not just paying for the tea; it’s all about the experience, the historic setting, the choice of 200 types of tea, the classically trained pianist in the corner, the expert advice of the tea sommelier and the chef’s artistry with choux pastry. And someone’s got to polish each silver teaspoon every time it’s used…

But at these prices, it’s hard not to start wondering how much the constituent ingredients would cost you in a supermarket – £3? £5? Surely not more than a tenner? And it’s then that your cup of oak-smoked Earl Grey could start to leave a bitter taste.

Especially when you consider that afternoon tea is such big business. And numbers are expected to rise during the Diamond Jubilee and Olympics. London hotels are reportedly offering up to six sittings a day, just to keep up with demand. So do they really need to charge such exorbitant prices if they’re going to get that much business?

Do you think that afternoon tea is an overpriced indulgence? Or is it an elite experience that’s actually fairly good value for a rare teatime treat or to celebrate a special occasion?


As far as I can see, this is harmless and might generate trade from overseas visitors.

I can reject this as a silly waste of money. What concerns me more is escalating prices for essential goods and services.

Greg says:
9 April 2012

I don’t see how this is even a problem. Yes I know it is overpriced, yes I know the ingredients cost less than half the price, but its the experience that counts plus the quality of the cakes and delicacies that matter.

Furthermore, if people want to pay to have it, then they can have it. The market sets the rate and if too many people thought it was too expensive, then prices would fall. Afternoon Tea is an option after all, and one that appeals to a certain person. If they want to spend their money on it, that’s fine by me.

Sites like http://www.afternoontea.co.uk/ and Groupon often have 2 for 1 deals so you can pick up a (relative) bargain on them, although I doubt the Ritz will ever be there. You tend to get unlimited tea and when I’ve been in groups we never got through all the selection so they can be good value if you treat it as an afternoon out and cost less than an evening at the pub.

Market demands and dictates…. tea at the Ritz has been for long an
institution, for those who can afford it (as with everything thing else in
life), why not and quite obviously not intended for the average plebeian.

Isn’t The Lanesborough former BBC admin offices?

As long as the wealthy spend their money in The U.K., it benefits the rest of us. If they choose to spend lavishly on brown, flavoured hot water and all the paraphernalia associated with it, why should they not do so? Meanwhile those with more sense than money, can have a good laugh at their expense!

I have a good laugh at those who spend silly amounts of money at famous restaurants, though recognise that they probably raise standards in the sector.

I have to admit that I love a good afternoon tea. I recently treated my partner to tea at The Lanesborough and yes, my wallet was smarting afterwards. But we had a wonderful afternoon in a beautiful dining room with live piano music and the best service I’ve ever experienced. The food and drink was amazing and they’d clearly made an effort to put a ‘twist’ on the classic menu.

On the other hand, I had warm scones and tea in a cafe in Cornwall last year for less than a tenner that I will simply never forget! Personally, I see no harm in a lavish afternoon tea for those who want to indulge once in a while. As Greg said in the comments above, I think it’s the experience that counts.

Sylvia says:
10 April 2012

The actual cost is probably not as important as whether you feel you are getting value for money, and that should include the experience or ambience.
£8.50 for warm tea, (unlimited hot water but this was irrelevant as the poor tea leaf had given its all), two stale scones, cream and mediocre, runny jam barely sufficient for just one scone, a table barely big enough for the teapot and three tier cakestand, (why?) and a view of the loo (just the one, hommes and femmes!). Ghastly! The Secret Garden in Sandwich basic cream tea would have been over-priced at a fiver.

Amber says:
10 April 2012

Tea hasn’t always been a great leveller, when it first arrived in the 17th century it was a luxury commodity bought at great expense. Tea tasters also operated throughout the 19th century to provide the very best, and the first tea of the season was highly prized, leading to races between the great clippers. There’s also a common misconception that ‘high’ tea relates to upper class pursuits; high tea was usually the hearty meal eaten by laborers when they returned from work, distinct from the practice of afternoon tea.

History aside, afternoon tea is such a peculiarly British institution that I do think it will drive revenue in the Olympic/jubilee year. Maybe this is one that’s best left to tourists rather than residents?

And then tea was debased by the invention of teabags. 🙁

Ian Jamieson says:
11 April 2012

We have a lot of fabulous afternoon tea venues here in Edinburgh. Most of them offer real value for money, plus, it’s a competitive market so venues are continually trying to be innovative and try to differentiate themselves with unique offerings such as afternoon tea and tarot reading or afternoon tea and dating advice.

Afternoon Teas help fill a typically quiet time in hotels ie.in the afternoon. It offers a bit of luxury to people who may not be able to pay for a full meal in a top hotel. It also helps employ people in hotels and attract visitors looking for the complete shopping.dining experience.

[Hi Ian, we have edited your comment slightly as we don’t allow advertising. Thanks, mods.]

Having partaken of exquisite afternoon tea service over the years at two or three superior hotels in central London [not the really top ones as we prefer something less pompous] we can honestly say that it is worth it once in a while as a treat or indulgence. However, we had a superb self-service afternoon tea at John Lewis in Norwich just before Easter with fabulous scones, excellent clotted cream and delicious jam; perhaps it was lacking the best Darjeeling broken orange pekoe tips, and we abstained from the dainty cupcakes, but – needless to say – the service was superlative.

Mark says:
11 April 2012

As a special treat I do think an afternoon tea is good value. The best afternoon teas are often to be found in the top 5 star London hotels – Browns, Hilton Park Lane, Lanesborough and the Dorchester are all very good. The Ritz is also good,if a little ‘stuck up’. By far and away the best for afternoon tea is Claridges. Service is excellent, the tea, sandwiches and cakes brilliant and they ‘top up’ as often as you want. It isn’t cheap but you can easily spend a thoroughly enjoyable 2-3 hours!

Had thought the Hilton in Park Lane with nice view (with or w/out binoculars)
of palace grounds from the upper floors, is 4 stars.

Claridges was the favourite of ‘tricky Dickie’ on his rare visits to London.

John Lewis in Oxford Street was good enough for me the last time I was

mo Nth Yorks says:
17 April 2012

Afternoon Teas are my favourite hobby and for the most wonderful afternoon tea in somewhere you would never expect is that at Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire. The Abbey has been home to a Community of Benedictine monks since 1802 and is open to visitors who can wander round the church, the grounds and lakes and it now has a Visitor Centre. But,,,the cafe is always the place to begin a visit – or end – and their generous amount of sandwiches, scones, cakes, and tea or coffee for 18 pounds for two people is THE best value for money I have ever found. I really do recommend a visit to everyone visiting North Yorkshire.

Murphybear says:
25 June 2012

If you want reasonable prices and fabulous food, there are many places outside city centres. I’m a bit prejudiced as I live in Devon

Debra Williams says:
14 December 2014

I would like to mention a few things that have not been included in how the cost may be valued …owners of establishments can not base the charge purely on ingredients
There are the fundamental costs to running any type of food service ie ; property rental , rates , utilities water electricity and gas , staff wages, property maintenance, advertising of events and the cost of the entertainer if provided
The above covers the ongoing costs which do not take into account any invested outlay accrued such as furnishings and crockery etc … So when you consider all these facts most venues charge fairly !

Most National Trust properties that run to a tearoom or café do a superb afternoon tea, often with scones baked there and then on the premises. Excellent value for money and the range usually incudes a large selection of gluten-free cakes. Staff are always very friendly and helpful. Our most recent experience was at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire, which is a beautiful and fascinating property with wonderful gardens; the tea (and scones) afterwards was the proverbial icing on the cake….!

When I was at school I occasionally entertained a friend at Cole Brothers in Sheffield – a John Lewis shop – to afternoon tea in the restaurant overlooking the cathedral. I just remember plenty of sandwiches, cakes and tea and it came out of my fairly meagre paper-round money. I cannot contemplate spending the huge sums mentioned above – I simply could not enjoy eating knowing the bill to come. But then, I’m a bit of a scrooge and would calculate just how much the ingredients cost (like Costa £2.50 coffee when I can make it for less than 10p). Sad, I know.

A very pleasant tea can be had just outside Dartmouth at a cafe near the castle overlooking the estuary. Home made scones, with jam, cream and tea replenished if it needs it. Lovely on a sunny day, providing the wasps are away on their hols. And at a sensible price.

Of course, with the right companion, the afternoon tea can be an investment, not a cost.

However, with petrol [and now diesel] at under 50p a pint, the question of the price of tea and other drinks does become more interesting; trouble is, diesel and the fondant fancies just don’t mix.

I live in Sheffield and we have a great traditional afternoon tea place called Inox Dine, their prices are reasonable and is i think alright value for money. I think what people forget to realise is that if you want normal tea then you will pay normal prices and that is what people need to consider.

efebevo says:
1 February 2017

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