Business Lunch Tips for Newbies

business lunch etiquette

2016 Update: Check out our latest discussion on dining etiquette for professional women

What are your best business lunch tips for newbies? What would you say are the key rules of etiquette that women new to the corporate world need to know?

Our list of the Top 10 Things to Know About a Business Lunch” is still one of our top posts here at Corporette. I remember the day I wrote it — the blog was about a week old, and I was still figuring out content (and posting anonymously back then). Both the TPS Report and the Suit of the Week were things I added at the absolute last minute!

I had gone to a large-ish group lunch with summer associates (there were maybe 10 of us there) and while no one acted egregiously, I remembered just how hard it was for me to learn that business etiquette stuff, and how awkward it was to turn around and try to impart that knowledge to summer associates. “To the blog!” I thought.

Since then, we’ve talked a lot on Corporette about business lunches: what not to order at a business lunch, how to navigate business lunches as a summer associate, when to offer to pay and when to pick up the check if you’re dining with partnershow to handle a work lunch as the only vegetarian or as someone with a gluten-free diet, what to wear to an alumni lunch event, and what to do with those leftovers — take ’em or leave ’em?

So I’m curious, readers — what are YOUR top three business lunch tips that you wish you could teach to all the young’uns at your company or firm this summer? What other kind of tips are important from a career and professionalism standpoint that are awkward to talk about with your younger colleagues?

Pictured: Fork!, originally uploaded to Flickr by Joshua Rappeneker.


  1. Senior Attorney :

    This isn’t so much a tip as a war story: Many years ago I was at a lunch with a summer associate candidate and The Very Most Senior Partner at my then-law firm. The Very Most Senior Partner was introduced to the candidate as “Al Lastname,” and throughout the lunch, the candidate addressed him as “Alfred.” Which was would have been bad enough, given that even his junior partners called him “Mr. Lastname,” but was particularly tragic in light of the fact that his actual first name was “Alvin.”

    Heh. Good times…

  2. Summer associates: please don’t stop by my office to let me know where you would like to go to lunch today.

    • anon in-house :

      Wow, true story?! Talk about entitled, spending your day scouring lunch options vs. work assignments to impress!

      • True story. Either Oceanaire or DC coast — it was fish-related.

        Now I say that real lawyers eat at their desks and go to Chipotle for takeout (but will dine in if anyone wants to come with).

        • Katy Beth :

          On the flip side, I clerked at a firm that expected the clerks to be “social” and the “go-getters,” which included asking the lawyers out for lunch. The other clerks I worked with had an on going friendly competition as to which clerk could get the least social lawyers out to lunch. The lawyers encouraged this behavior as lunch was one of the ways the clerks and lawyers got to interact on a personal level. True story.

  3. 1. It’s ok to ask your fellow lunch-ees if they’re planning on appetizers or only a main course. Much better than being the only person who does / doesn’t order both.
    2. Don’t be the girl that everyone else has to slow down for because you’re wearing 4″ heels. If you can’t walk at a reasonable normal man pace (not a power walk, but comfortably keeping up), switch your shoes for the walk to lunch.
    3. Hopefully this isn’t a common issue, because I’ve only seen it once – don’t use one of those purse hanger things to keep your bag off the floor.

    • Re #3, I lost a bag once because I had to rest it on the floor at a restaurant (it wasn’t a super-fancy bag and the floor wasn’t icky). But then something (that included a lot of guacamole) got spilled into it and . . . YUCK.

      I cannot have nice things and have since adopted the wristlet-for-lunch mindset (so always open to recommendations . . .).

      • Veronique :

        1. Do not start eating until everyone is served and the host (usually the most senior person if the firm is hosting) starts eating or indicates that it’s ok to start. The only exception is if the host tells you to go ahead and eat instead of waiting for everyone else.

        2. Know what you want to order when the waiter gets to you. Don’t ask too many questions. Pick something you want to eat as is, or with no more than 1 modification. You don’t want to be that girl (or guy) who asks the waiter what’s in every single dish, orders a salad with dressing on the side, subs veggies for the rice and asks for no onions because you just don’t like them. It makes you look high-maintenance.

        2a. If you have an allergy, ask something like “Does this have shrimp in it? I’m allergic to shellfish.” This conveys that you have a specific medical concern, not that you’re a high-maintenance person.

        3. Think about ordering around the same level of “healthiness” as everyone else. If they’re all getting salads entrees, maybe a smaller entree with a side salad would be a better choice than a giant bowl of pasta. Other people might not notice or think anything of it, but if you feel awkward or nervous already, you don’t want another reason to feel different.

        4. If you know where you’re going in advance, try to look up the menu or even call ahead to ask questions if you have specific concerns (trying to eat healthy, just don’t like certain foods) that might appear high maintenance.

        5. Don’t order the most expensive item on the menu.

    • Woods-comma-Elle :

      Sorry, but I don’t understand that last comment. Why not? The purpose of the hook is to keep your bag safe and not be stolen. Unless it is a very tight space (in which case I can see the point) I would encourage, not discourage, my female summers to keep their belongings safe.

      • Yeah, I don’t really get that one either. I could see how it may seem a little high maintenance, I guess, but it doesn’t seem like a problem to me.

        • People carrying their own hooks, maybe, v. those under the bar hooks I’ve seen used for purses or umbrellas.

          BYO purse carabiner = maybe you look high maintenance (or bag is too fancy)?

          • downstream :

            I actually think that knowing that you don’t want your bag on the floor, and acting proactively to bring a hook with you so that it doesn’t go on the floor, is the opposite of high maintenance. You know what you’re comfortable with and you take action to make sure you’re comfortable, without affecting anyone else.

          • Eh – if you don’t make a big production out of it, and aren’t inconveniencing anyone (like taking up what would otherwise be a seat) to hang up the bag, I don’t see the high maintenance issue.

            I wouldn’t want to put any bag I carry (expensive or not) on the floor, and if there isn’t another space on a seat, then I’d definitely see the benefit of being able to hang it off the table.

          • Yeah, I think that your own hook –as long as it’s not obstructing others — is fine, except that it should be relatively simple/not say “I love shoes” or whatever on it. That can be a little silly.

        • It’s not just an issue of dirt on your bag. These days, especially in big cities, putting a bag on the floor is inviting bedbugs to go home with you. I’ve had several episodes of finding my feet devoured when leaving a restaurant, and being very glad that I’ve stopped letting my bag ever touch the floor, no matter how pristine it may look.

      • TO Lawyer :

        I understand this advice to a point – as a young female lawyer in a fairly male-dominated practice area, I do feel very self-conscious of being too high maintenance – and more senior (male and female) lawyers do notice when you are being high maintenance. I think at this stage, it’s probably wise to seem as easygoing as possible when it comes to things like your wardrobe etc.

        • Agreed. Sometimes, you just want to be noticed and remembered for who you are. If you are remembered for the bag you carry (or your bag hook) at a business lunch, I think you’d better be the client or the senior person there. At this point in my career, it would be a lunch fail.

      • Why is it safer to hang your purse off the table (where it could get in the way of fellow diners’ laps) rather than just put it on the floor between your feet? I’d much rather have it on the floor where I can feel it.

        FWIW, I think Cat’s comment was geared more towards those hooky things that you hook on the table yourself rather than hooks that the restaurant has installed on the bottom of the table.

    • downstream :

      How does someone using a purse hanger thing affect you? And if it doesn’t affect you, why do you care?

    • I say to skip the purse hanger (yes, I mean one of the little gizmos meant to be carried around with you, as opposed to hooks under the table that are restaurant-provided) because (1) I’m always bumping into whoever’s purse it is, because if it’s a purse that’s bigger than can be neatly tucked between your feet or between your butt and the back of an upholstered chair, it’s a purse that my knees run into under the table or as I’m turning to get up, and (2) it reads as high maintenance to me because of the implications of worrying about getting dirt on the bottom of your bag.

      Hence, I suggest that summers get a small wristlet, big enough for phone, security pass and a credit card, that’s easy to keep secure at the table without the fuss.

    • Don’t order anything (appetizer/dessert) to share unless the host suggests it first. If the firm has a budget, pay attention to it (unless your host indicates otherwise).

    • In hong kong women place their bags on the seat, behind their backs. Solves the security and filth issues, improves posture as well

  4. downstream :

    It is a real sign of the times that when I read “Blackberries should be kept under the table . . . .” I thought of the fruit, and not the phone.

    • Orangerie :

      Hahahaha, me too!

    • It’s a sign of you’re being behind the times ;)

      • your*

      • I don’t see it that way – like I think downstream meant, the reference stuck out to me because the Ubiquitous Blackberry has since turned into the Ubiquitous iPhone.

        • I see, that is unless if Kat had said “Apples should be kept under the table . . . .” she thought of the fruit, and not the device :D

  5. The lesson I tell young associate’s is NEVER get drunk at lunch. It will NOT help your chance’s of geting a full time job. I do NOT have this issue b/c I am one of 3 associate’s at my firm, and everyone else is OVER 60 year’s old. We do NOT have the typical BIG firm issue’s.

    I do have another lesson. Alway’s pick up the bill when you are with a cleint. This way, you look important, and you can alway’s bill it back later. Yay!

  6. Amelia Bedelia :

    If you are a summer associate, do NOT use your iPhone during lunch. Especially if you don’t have work email sent to your phone during the clerkship. The associates and partners know if you don’t have access. They will be offended that you think it’s okay to check g-chat or personal email during lunch. It doesn’t matter if the partner checks. That is not an invitation to check yours. Seriously. Don’t.
    The only caveat is if you were expecting big news and told people – i.e., my dog is in surgery and I’m expecting news at any moment; please excuse my checking this periodically.

    • Along the same lines, you should put your phone on vibrate/silent during the lunch.

    • Agreed about mobile devices. And same if you pick up your phone when it rings.

      I did this once in a business lunch with a big client. My nanny called, and she doesn’t usually just call to tell me everything is fine, so I excused myself and took the call. (All was well, she was making sure the kids were pool safe, but still, I felt that I had to pick up that call.)

  7. Senior Assoc. :

    Match the average pace of the others who you are eating with. You don’t want to hold people up if you’re a really slow eater and it is also weird if you finish significantly earlier than the rest of your group.

    • I notice this a lot. I eat (ingest the food, not including the waiting in line, ordering etc. ) in 20 minutes at most and this is the case for all my coworkers.
      Sometimes, one person is very slow and the other 7 have finished eating and are staring blankly as she chews very slowly.
      It can get awkward when people start wondering whether to order coffee to have it while waiting for slow-person to finish, but then worry she might want to get coffee too, and there goes the 2PM conf call!

  8. If possible, strategically choose where to sit – not necessarily beside the most important person but in a place that you’re not trapped talking to one person. This can be hard depending on when you arrive, but paying attention to it does give you a leg up!

    • This has helped me and is slightly amusing: (slight language)

  9. Anonymous :

    What can an intern do in downtime? As in no work and no way to get work.
    1) read the newspaper
    2) read related documents/websites
    3) read a novel
    4) talk to other interns
    5) study a textbook

    • 1) NO
      2) maybe
      4) maybe
      5) NO

      • Reading the newspaper totally depends on the industry. I’m in DC and reading the newspaper (at least, anything that’s happening in the federal government) is almost mandatory for pretty much any office. If you’re at all connected to financial services — e.g., any financial services company, a law firm with a securities practice, even dealing with antitrust etc. — reading the WSJ or FT is useful. If you’re at a non-profit, reading articles that somehow relate to your organization’s work — e.g., you provide services to the homeless and there’s an article about changes to government programs — that would be a very appropriate thing for an intern to do.

      • I would say the answer to these things depends on what your internship is. Reading a newspaper or related nonfiction/text book was always perfectly acceptable in my international relations/political/think tank environments. If anything, reading relevant literature and current events demonstrated you were being proactive in learning about the issues.

        I would say make sure the activity can be related back to what you do in some way. Maybe reading a novel is relevant if you are an intern at a publishing company, but maybe it should be a novel of the company’s biggest author or read in conjunction with learning about a big client or the publishing process.

        Communicate to your supervisors you have down time and let them know what related activities you are doing to fill the time. I am “reading XYZ Industry Book because I know you wrote a white paper on that 6 months ago. I know you may not have a task for me right now, but I’m looking forward to reading about this topic area in the interim. Let me know when I can help.” Or perhaps, “I know you are always looking for editorial topics- I’m reading [supervisor’s favorite newspaper] in my down time and would love to compile a list of noted articles for you that I think could be interesting editorial topics.”

        So long as you are relating your activities back to your job and showing your eagerness to help/do work as soon as it comes up, I think this is a know your internship thing.

      • You’re both right, thank you. I spend so much time in law that I forget there are other worlds out there :). We are expected to keep up with the news like the WSJ or FT online, but the image of summer associate reading an actual paper newspaper at his or her desk sends off alarm bells in my head.

    • I think all except 3 and 4 are fine. When I was interning, they wanted you to read if you were done with your work (and had asked if there was anything else you could do). I say no to the talking among interns item because it can be distracting to the others in the office (if you are in a bullpen/cubicle environment).

    • Textbook in engineering can be okay, as well as industry manuals. Talking to other people (networking) is also good.

      • I second that. We often don’t have enough to keep the interns busy, so we have them take online courses related to their assignment.

        Actually, if you’re in engineering, I don’t think it’s possible to run out of extra things like that. You can always read a spec book, or look over drawings, or find hundreds of articles that are at least tangentially related to whatever you’re doing.

    • 6) ask for another assignment (be proactive! be productive! be useful!)

  10. Etiquette is about making people feel comfortable so if there is a gaffe on a fellow diner’s part, let it slide. I was at a networking lunch once and someone used the wrong bread plate. I happened to hear someone else correct her and it just felt so awkward.
    A friend of mine used to ask for spare napkins so her (admittedly very expensive) handbags didn’t touch the floor. It seems like it would be easier to seek out bags with feet.

    • Seriously? Napkins so her handbag wouldn’t touch the floor? Business lunch or not, that is just so princessy I have no words….And I’m with you re the feet.

  11. 1. Be gracious (mind your manners and treat the restaurant staff well – people notice that and the staff will remember if you don’t)
    2. Make a point to know who is attending, remember their names, and try to learn something about each person
    3. Be interesting (I don’t mean to sound all Kate Spade or Coco Chanel by this, but I mean having the ability to carry on a conversation about the industry, the day’s news stories, preparing a few questions to ask tablemates – weekend plans, etc etc)

  12. OttLobbyist :

    1. Don’t order something you’ve never tried before if there is even the tiniest chance you will hate it.

    2. If you know red wine makes you go bright red, don’t have it (on the assumption alcohol at lunch is even an option, which it isn’t here).

    3. Read the news that morning and have at least one intelligent thing to say on a topic relevant to your city, to your profession, and something important to you that isn’t out of context with your colleagues (sports, volunteering, etc…)

    3a. Celebrity/entertainment news is not news in this context.

    • coffeebreak :

      Celebrity/entertainment news seems to be the only news that happens at the female lawyer lunches I attend in my department, unless the conversation is about motherhood and children. Don’t bring up foreign affairs or international travel or you will be looked at as odd.

    • AnonInfinity :

      3a is definitely a know-your-firm deal. It’s not that an entire lunch is taken up with Kim and Kanye’s baby gossip, but at my firm, if you have nothing to contribute to a conversation about pop culture, people might think you’re weird. Especially if you’re at lunch with just the associates.

  13. Be interesting! Seriously, do not sit there and answer questions with one word answers. Doubly so if you’re at a law firm. Many lawyers are painfully awkward so work hard not to contribute to the awkward vibe. Read the news every morning and pick out a few (non-controversial) things to talk about. For example “did anyone see the guy walking across the Grand Canyon last night?”


    Discussion of business lunch etiquette always makes me think of the part of the movie that’s about the Japanese salaryman lunch at a posh French restaurant.

    The most senior business man orders first, and he orders the sole meuniere and a Heineken, and all the salarymen junior to him (in order of rank) copy his orders exactly.

    However, the juniormost salaryman breaks all the protocols by showing that he knows more about French cuisine than everybody else, and makes a big production out of specifying his order with the waiter, and orders a super expensive dish and drink. The reactions of the other salarymen are priceless.

    • Girl in the stix :

      From Tampopo, my one of my favorite foodie movies! It was originally billed as a Japanese noodle western, and has many sly pokes at American westerns, and Japanese culture as well.

  15. Order something relatively easy to eat. Never spaghetti or something messy.

    Defer to others to order first. If they don’t order drinks, you shouldn’t either. If they are all ordering vegetarian, you should probably not get some rare beef. Even if everyone else is getting scotch, you should stick to something lighter, unless you are certain you have the capacity.

    Don’t talk with your mouth full.

    Listen more than you talk.

    Have a couple of pre-thought-out questions that you can ask if the conversation lags. A recent big case, an interesting client, upcoming litigation are always good topics.

    Go to the bathroom before you leave for lunch. If you excuse yourself from the table more than once (without a good medical reason), it’s going to get talked about.

    Don’t be the picky orderer who changes everything about the item they order. Pick out something that works with minimal changes. If you have something that significantly restricts your ability to eat most foods, call the restaurant ahead of time, and set up what you will order. This is especially nice if you are taking out a client, and you go to the restaurant often.

    • Spaghetti isn’t messy. Only people who stopped eating it by kindergarden are… Ever seen an Italian be messy with their pasta?!?

  16. Here’s my conundrum for a new associate/young attorney: I’ve been a strict vegetarian my entire life (I’ve learned the hard way, accidental meat does NOT sit in my stomach), and oftentimes, the only vegetarian options are rather messy (strange salads and spaghetti!). Is it ok to ask for a non-messy dish with the meat/fish/egg removed or is asking for the substitution too high maintenance?

    • I don’t think being a vegetarian is going to be seen as high maintenance most of the times. If it is a relatively easy fix, like just removing a protein topping on a dish, go for it. If you start by asking that the dish be prepared with vegatable stock instead of chicken stock, to hold the meat and double the beans on a dish that originally appeared on the menu as white chicken chili, then you’d be better off learning to neatly eat messy dishes.

    • Veronique :

      It probably depends on your office and/or region. In California? No big deal. In Texas? Probably high maintenance. My other concern would be that ordering that way increases the likelihood of having accidental meat in your meal. For example, a risotto may be cooked with chicken broth, even if the chicken is removed. You definitely don’t want to spend the rest of the afternoon at the office with stomach issues. If you can, call ahead to find out if this is an easy change. Another substitution would be to ask if a neater pasta shape like penne instead of spaghetti in the vegetarian dish.

    • This is a situation where I would look at the menu in advance and plan out what you will order. I think it’s fine to ask for something without the meat, but if you say “is x vegetarian” or “can x be made vegetarian,” you risk getting into a vegetarianism debate. This may depend on your area and your coworkers, but some people get pretty defensive about their own food choices and might assume you are judging them when they find out they’re eating meat in front of a vegetarian.

    • Personally, I’d go with the vegetarian food even if it’s not ideal, but people also talked about calling restaurants ahead to make orders with alterations. That seems like a good idea if the alteration is anything at all complex. The only alterations I’d make at the table are on the order of a leafy salad without the meat on it.

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