An Etiquette Guide for Your Next Business Lunch

Common courtesies for eating a business lunch with clients or vendors.

I once witnessed a colleague spill two glasses of water during a lunch meeting, where luckily no iPhones were harmed in the making. My coworker thankfully recovered by ordering appetizers for the table that everyone loved. Now, you may not be able to control clumsiness, but you can prep for a business lunch with a few etiquette tips. And yes, your parents’ rule still holds true: no elbows on the table.

So, where should we go for this business lunch?

  • If you’d rather stay in:Put that swanky board room to good use and stay in for a lunch meeting by having it catered. Catering in the office doesn’t mean only lukewarm Panera anymore, either. You have so many options at your fingertips with apps and sites like, as an example.
  • If you need a new go-to:For new hot spots, Eater has a solid record of good eats.
  • If you don’t know the area:Check out Foursquare, Yelp, Urbanspoon (app), or Opentable (this makes reservations, too).
  • If you don’t know the attendees well:Pick a safe bet -- nothing too exotic. Chains are a decent option, albeit not always exciting.
  • Guests want to try something local:If you’re not sure, try Googling “local restaurants in _____” or LocalEats ($0.99 app). Ask a colleague or passerby; word of mouth works well in this instance.Tip! When you tell your guests about the restaurant, let them know you have not been before. They won’t be able to hold you responsible if they don’t like it.
  • If you’re paying:If you’re trying to sell to your guests, up the ante and go for the $15-25 per entrée range. This is assuming the prices fall within your company’s expense guidelines.
  • If they’re paying:The official per person max lunch cost per the US Gov is $18. Although, companies are usually flexible with expenses when it comes to a client lunch. But try not to hit up the white tablecloth steakhouse.Tip!Find the menu online to review the actual prices. You can double check that the price range symbols on sites like Yelp are accurate.

[caption id="attachment_6576" align="aligncenter" width="900"] catered lunch example with gourmet sandwiches

Nowhere to go? Sit back and relax while brings lunch to you.[/caption]

“Are you ready to order?”

  • Avoid game-time decisions.Look up the menu beforehand so you’ve scouted a few potential options. An old coworker of mine always ordered the turkey club as her go-to. Find something that every restaurant usually has.
  • Don’t overdo it.Have a snack before so you’re not weary from hunger and suddenly your eyes are bigger than your stomach. If only restaurants had more sampler options.
  • See what the guest or your boss is ordering first.Try to stay in the same vein -- if they’re ordering a salad, don’t overdo it with a steak and several sides. If they order an appetizer and an entree, try and get both as well.
  • Sorry, no Monday Funday.Don't indulge in an adult beverage. Unless your boss and/or guest is imbibing -- but sip slowly and limit it to one. Otherwise, iced tea or club soda with lemon are good alternatives.
  • Looking for the kids' menu?If you’re picky, try not to be annoying to your guests. If you have a legitimate allergy, okay. But keep the ordering efficient.
  • Don’t go for the filet mignon.Avoid the most expensive dish on the menu, unless you’re encouraged by your guest or boss.
  • Didn’t bring a Shout pen?Watch out for foods that are hard to eat, stain easily, or get stuck in your teeth. Burgers, finger foods, pasta could all be disastrous. I once ate churros with chocolate dipping sauce for dessert and ended up covered in chocolate by the end of the meal.

[caption id="attachment_6578" align="aligncenter" width="400"]

Business lunch Mad Men Roger Sterling Don Draper Martini Lunch

Business lunches today aren't exactly the three martini special of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce[/caption]

The awkward social stuff that always happens at a business lunch

  • Greeting or meeting your guests for the first timeShake hands, firmly. Note, if your guests are from outside the US, review their cultural norms first.
  • Chair versus boothWho goes where? Allow your guest(s) to choose. Hopefully, everyone used the restroom beforehand in case the booth traps them in. Musical chairs is a fun game and all, but social anxiety isn’t.
  • Upon sitting downNapkin goes into your lap right away. If you get up to use the restroom, napkin goes on the chair and not the table. Elbows off the table (Yes, Mom!).
  • Which bread plate is mine? And water?Your bread plate is on the left, water to the right.
  • During the mealPour others’ water first before filling yours. Distribute your time evenly between talking, eating, and listening. Don't chew with your mouth open, or speak while chewing. We all know that guy. Listen and observe; if anyone gets uncomfortable via their voice or body language, change subjects. Make eye contact. Don’t overthink it and it won’t be awkward.
  • What to chat about? Try to avoid dipping into politics or religion, even if you think you’re on the same page with your guests. The classic questions of "Where do you live?", "Where are you from?", and "How many siblings do you have?" work well. You can also ask about family, hobbies, travel, sports, movies, TV shows, and music. Look up a few industry-specific news bites before the meal that you can share. You'll sound knowledgeable and spark conversation.
  • Try not to check your phone.In fact, leave it in your bag or pocket. Dedicate your time and focus your attention.
  • Be nice to the restaurant staff.It’s not a good look to put anyone down, especially the waitstaff while at a business meal.
  • Finished eating?Place your fork and knife down side by side on your plate.

[caption id="attachment_6577" align="aligncenter" width="400"]

Dilbert business lunch with them eating sad paper bag lunches

A sad business lunch. via Dilbert by Scott Adams[/caption]

Mo’ money, mo’ problems: who’s paying the check?

  • If you’re the guest:The most senior person from the host or vendor firm should always pay. If there is a delay, offer to pay and hope that the host or vendor replaces your card with theirs.
  • If you’re the host or vendor:Quietly provide your card to the server before you even sit down or while on a bathroom break -- it’s a classy way to close things out.

It’s not goodbye; it’s see you at the next business lunch.

  • Give thanksClose out the lunch with a thank you and a second firm handshake.
  • Follow-upLet them know you’ll send them a follow-up email as the vendor or you’re expecting one as the client. It’s a direct way to bring things back to reality.

The more you know: lunchtime business etiquette goes much deeper than please and thank you. But now you’ll be smooth eating with this guidance. If you are business lunching outside of the US, other countries will have different customs to research. If you’re business lunching inside your own office, have more confidence in the room booking process.

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