What makes a good afternoon tea service?

As part of my overall reviews of afternoon tea, this time I want to talk specifically about service. I can honestly say I am one of the fussiest people I have ever met. Second only to my mother, who taught me in life, that if you are paying for something then it should be up to scratch. I remember the first time I took her to a five star hotel in London when I was about 22, thinking that I had done really well (£65 for afternoon tea pp!) and that she would have a wonderful time.  Carol hadn’t even sat down before she had brushed some crumbs off the seat and immediately noticed a chip in the water glass. I was mortified at her comments as she immediately handed the waiter the glass requesting a new one.  The more places I’ve been to, I have realised that she is right, I mean would you want to drink out of a chipped water glass and pay £65 for the privilege?

Now, let’s pretend I’m out for afternoon tea with Carol. I have outlined the things below that need to be perfect in order to have a happy mother.

Attentiveness and speed

Speed and attentiveness go hand in hand. A good waiter will notice when you have closed your menu and realise that you are ready to order. Likewise they will come and check on you whenever you have been served. There are countless places that I have been to that have placed the afternoon tea stand on the table and barely looked at you afterwards.

At the perfect afternoon tea, the waiter should check on you at least twice while you are eating and be on hand, should you need anything. There is nothing more frustrating than having to twist and strain to find a waiter. Or worse still, be waiting a long time to be served.

“We pride ourselves on our engagement, not letting the guests wait at any stage from their arrival to once they have sat at the table. Our staff are on stage, alert and ready for action!” says Glenn Piper who is the Foyer and Reading Room Restaurant Director at Claridge's.

Afternoon tea expert tip: If you’re not happy with you afternoon tea service, make sure you speak up at the time. There’s little to be done after the bill is paid and most venues would rather know during your experience if there’s issues as they would rectify them.


There isn’t too far you can go wrong with afternoon tea in terms of accuracy as it’s a set menu. However, if you have specific dietary requirements like halal, vegan or non-diary, make sure you state this at time of booking and again when you are seated. At Claridge’s, Glenn and his team “ask about dietaries, requests, celebrations at booking stage and then reconfirm via our reservation team and then again on the day when the guest arrives.”

I don’t eat pork and luckily this has always been catered to but I have heard horror stories (yes I’m that dramatic) of people eating things they shouldn’t. When health and religious reasons are involved it needs to be taken seriously. I rate when waiters pay attention and point out any gelatine deserts I can’t eat – a detail some would over look!

Afternoon tea expert tip: State dietaries at time of booking and check when you’re there. Most of the top London hotels can cater for almost anything so don’t be afraid to ask in advance, even if it’s not on the menu!

Attention to detail

When I was 17 and before my afternoon tea days, I worked in Debenhams on the ladies floor. It was one of Debenhams larger Northern Irish stores in Derry (think 90’s Derry Girls) and whenever I am reviewing venues, some of the training that I had there comes back to me. I have always remembered that if a customer is in front of me, then it doesn’t matter if the phone is ringing they come first. Same with afternoon tea service, I have walked in to be greeted with someone having a personal conversation with a colleague while I’ve had to wait and have had a busy waiter rush past without saying anything while I raised my hand. Communication is key!

The Gainsbourgh Bath Spa’s Restaurant Manager Kris Speechly agrees saying: “I believe that the most important aspect of afternoon tea service is cohesion - the offering must fit in with the overall brand. This means that everything - the food presentation, the afternoon tea stand design, the quality of the crockery and cutlery, the level of the service, the staff uniform, the décor of the restaurant, the music - must all complement and reinforce each other.”


Maybe Carol trained me well. Or maybe I am turning into my mother? Either way, I rate the rubbish teas so you don’t have to waste your money. Sign up to my newsletter to hear the breakdown of how I rate teas and the best places to go.

Eileen Donaghey