Once a stop-gap between lunch and a late dinner, afternoon tea has become a decadent affair the world over. Often confused with high tea, a heavier working-class meal served with a pot of strong tea at a high table (hence the name), afternoon tea (or "low tea" in reference to the low tables the upper class would sit around) is a British tradition that never goes out of fashion.
At The Ritz London, afternoon tea is a jacket-and-tie affair where tradition is paramount, while at Pierre Gagnaire's Sketch, also in London, afternoon tea is served against a woodland backdrop.
Closer to home, there's an afternoon tea to suit every occasion, so whether you choose to take it high or low, take it in the afternoon – and remember to sip, not slurp.
The Melbourne institution
The Hotel Windsor, 111 Spring Street, Melbourne, 9633 6004
Afternoon tea at the Windsor is served in an elegant dining room under crystal chandeliers, a tradition at the hotel since 1883. Here, the three-tiered stand reigns supreme. Load up your delicate china plate with smoked salmon ribbon sandwiches of creamy avocado and dill, Madagascar vanilla bean cream-cheese-frosted red velvet sponge, and scones, fresh from the oven, with double cream and signature jams.
Mother's Day will feature morning tea at 10.30am and afternoon tea at 4.30pm for $99 per adult, $60 for children aged between seven and 12, and $40 for children aged three to six. From Monday to Friday there are various sittings for $59 a head. Weekends are $79 a head, including dessert buffet.
Try: the award-winning Hotel Windsor Afternoon Tea Blend.
The innovative twist
The Langham, 1 Southgate Avenue, Southbank, 8696 8888
Afternoon tea at the Langham is exquisite, extravagant and almost too good to eat. Darren Purchese has collaborated with The Langham for a limited series of indulgent afternoon tea experiences. No two are the same. Past standouts include smoked white chocolate cream cake with coffee, aniseed and lemon; salted caramel gold bars; and explosive raspberry marshmallows, all coupled with savouries, espresso coffee and loose-leaf tea. Friday, once a month, various sittings, $69 a head.
Try: The Langham Classic Tiffin afternoon tea.
An occasion for artistry
The Tea Room, Level 1, National Gallery of Victoria, 180 St Kilda Road, Southbank, 8620 2222
The National Gallery's Tea Room puts a modern spin on tradition, matching quality T2 teas to pots.
A large elegant pot holds classic Good Morning Tea; there's an edgy angular pot for unusual smoky Keemun; and flower teas, such as the Chrysanthemum Burst, are served in a glass tea pot for full visual effect.
But rest assured, chicken and herb mayonnaise sandwiches come with the crusts removed, because some traditions should never be messed with. Wednesday to Monday, 10am to 5pm, $45 a head.
Try: the house blend tea.
Old world charm
Hopetoun Tea Rooms, Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 9650 2777
Tea trolleys might be a thing of the past at the Hopetoun Tea Rooms, but the queue of afternoon tea devotees remains. Work your way through the three-tiered stand from bottom to top, sampling mini quiche Lorraine, roast beef sirloin ribbon sandwiches with grain mustard and salad leaves, signature petit fours, and seasonal fresh fruit, while admiring the stunning etched mirror on the back wall. Daily, 10am to 2.30pm, $50 a head.
Try: the Hopetoun Tea Room pinwheels.
Overnewton Castle, 51 Overnewton Road, Keilor, 9331 6367
A mere 30-minute drive from Melbourne's CBD, you can take tea like royalty at Overnewton Castle, set amid 1.6 hectares of historic gardens. It offers turkey, cranberry and cucumber fingers, mandatory scones with jam and cream, and petit fours of citrus tarts and chocolate diamonds, with a selection of freshly brewed Twinings tea. Monthly, 1pm to 3pm, $45 a head.
Try: the themed afternoon teas.
Where a Girl Goes, 30-34 Oxford Street, Collingwood, 9495 6133
Housed in a French-style tea salon, stationer Cristina Re hosts afternoon teas against a lavishly beautiful backdrop. Add a craft workshop to the Signature High Tea and, after nibbling on pretty pastel-iced cupcakes, mini macarons, and tea sipped from dainty gold-rimmed cups, a fully-qualified craft teacher will take you on a creative journey. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, $69 a head, Saturday and Sunday, $79 a head.
Try: the Sparkling Glamour cocktails.
European high tea
Mamor Chocolates and High Tea Szalon, 153 Johnston Street, Collingwood, 9419 3869
Served on imperial settings in the sumptuous szalon, the Austro-Hungarian high tea at Mamor is an opulent affair. There are nine courses in all, including Lipto cheese spread on bread, pogacsa (potato scones), rakoczi cheesecake slice, and signature chocolate truffles. By appointment, Wednesday to Friday, $55 a head; Saturday to Sunday, $65 a head.
Try: Dr Hanna's artisan chocolates.
The garden party
Madame Brussels, Level 3, 59 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9662 2775
Named after one of Melbourne's most notorious madams, Madame Brussels takes afternoon tea to another level with its private soirees. Gather your girlfriends on the terrace and shelter under a dainty parasol or snuggle under a fluffy blanket while enjoying "daggy old-fashioned sandwiches", such as curried egg or ham and pickles, sausage rolls, cupcakes with multicoloured sprinkles, and tea poured from a cosy-clad teapot. Monday to Friday for groups of 10 or more; and Saturday to Sunday from 12 to 5pm, $42 a head.
Try: a jug of refreshing DD Cup.
InterContinental Melbourne, The Rialto, 495 Collins Street, 8627 1568
This unique take on the classic afternoon tea kicks off with an espresso martini, served on arrival, followed by sandwiches of wagyu beef with cucumber relish and watercress, and mini prosciutto and green asparagus quiche. Sweet treats of vanilla and raspberry pannacotta, and couverture chocolate and macadamia slice come with matched coffee suggestions. (The cafe corretto is the perfect finish – or evening starter). Daily, 2pm to 5pm, $55 a head.
Try: the live jazz on the last Friday of every month.
* The Cancer Council celebrates the 20th anniversary of its Australia's Biggest Morning Tea fundraiser on Thursday, May 23. For more information: www.biggestmorningtea.com.au