With more and more business and interviewing taking place over lunch these days, I thought it made sense to take a moment or two to run through the do’s and don’ts for being an effective guest in these situations because, despite what the dating service may say, it’s never “just lunch.”
If the restaurant is unknown to you and an advance reconnaissance is possible, you will want to stop by the restaurant beforehand to check whether there is parking readily available nearby, or if you will need to allow time to look for a space or possibly walk a few minutes from your car to the restaurant. If this isn’t possible, you will want to research the restaurant online before you arrive.
You will want to be on time.
You will want to have allowed time to use the bathroom prior to your scheduled meeting time, if that’s necessary. [I know it seems mad that I have to write this down, but I can’t tell you how many people arrive at lunch meetings and leave me at the table for the first ten minutes while they go to the bathroom.]
You will want to follow your host’s lead regarding whether or not he or she wants to dive right into a business conversation. I prefer to allow a bit of time before getting into “why we’re here today.” You will, of course, have done advance prep on your host’s interests/hobbies so this small talk time will be meaningful. If that hasn’t been possible, and the answer isn’t immediately apparent—i.e., it’s the only game in town, or it has a five star reputation-- ask why your host chose the restaurant. Is it a favorite? Is there something he or she would recommend? Have they taken trips to its country of origin? [Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Brazil…? You get the idea.]
If there is anything funky about your place setting or your food—short of visible shards of broken glass, or the possibility of anaphylactic shock—you will want to keep it to yourself. It’s not the time to comment on smears on your knife, or your feelings about the unexpected use of balsamic vinegar in your salad. If there is something that needs to be addressed, ask your host to handle it with the restaurant. It’s not your job.
Please do not discuss your feelings about carbohydrates, white flour, white sugar, eating fats, the use of bovine growth hormone, the conditions under which chickens are raised, or your latest diet plan, should you be on one. If you are a lactose-intolerant, wheat-intolerant, or have too much candida, keep it to yourself. If you are a vegetarian, pescetarian, vegan, fruitarian, raw foodist, don’t bring it up unless directly asked. If you are asked, respond and move on. Unless your eating plan is the focus of the meal, this is not the time or place to discuss those habits.
If you arrive at the restaurant before your lunch partner, you may either choose to wait for him or her at the bar or at the table. In general, I wait at the table, but this is often a judgment call based on your relationship with the person you are meeting, and the space you’re meeting in. If you know the person well, or the bar is set up to facilitate the waiting process, the bar can be a fine choice. Should you choose to go to the table, feel free to order the water or soft drink of your choice. You will not be having an alcoholic drink.
If you arrive at the restaurant with your lunch partner, and you are a party of one man and one woman, the man should stand back and let the woman follow the maitre d’ to the table—even if he made the reservation. If you are two men, let your guest go first. This ensures your guest will get the best seat at the table. If you are the woman, and the host, you can give your male lunch partner the better seat on his arrival. [That said, I do make exceptions for people with extremely long legs. Notice if someone has them. If so, put him or her where there’s the most room.]
Your napkin goes in your lap immediately after sitting down.
If you are offered a roll, break it in pieces and butter each piece individually just before eating it. Do not cut it in half and butter it like a sandwich.
Check in with your host about what he or she might be ordering. If it’s just an entrée, follow that lead. You don’t want to be tucking into the seared foie gras appetizer followed by a whole, de-boned fish if all that your host ordered is a salad.
Order food that’s easy to manage. For example, if you have the choice between vegetable or onion soup, order the vegetable soup. No one wants to see you playing cat’s cradle with the cheese on top of the onion soup. If you have a choice between a green salad and a frisee salad, get the green salad. No one wants to see the frisee hanging out of your mouth like calamari legs. If you have the choice between pasta and ravioli, choose the ravioli, etc, etc.
Don’t forget to use “please” and “thank you” with the wait staff as they take your order and bring your food.
For multiple courses, choose the fork or spoon furthest from your plate for your first course and work your way inward.
Please hold your fork like a pencil, not like a trowel. I can’t say this emphatically enough. It is one place my mother lives in me. Yes, it means you will have to transfer your fork to your dominant hand if you are using both your fork and knife. This modicum of effort is worth the payoff.
Sit up straight.
Should you need to go to the bathroom, excuse yourself to use the Ladies or Men’s Room. You aren’t going to the john, the restroom, or the powder room. You are definitely not going to “hit the head.” Leave your napkin on your chair when you go, not on the table.
If you are asked if you want coffee at the end of the meal, again, follow your host’s lead. If he or she declines coffee, you should too. Know that some people think ordering cappuccino after 11 a.m. is infamous. I’m not saying I buy into that particular brand of thinking; I’m just making you aware that it exists.
Your host will handle the bill. Do not feel the need to chatter as he or she does so.
You will want to enjoy yourself. The greatest compliment you can pay your host is to be attentive, relaxed, and appreciative.
A simple, “Thank you so much for a lovely lunch,” will suffice, since you will be following up with a handwritten thank you note.