Dining Etiquette: 10 Things to Know About Business Lunches

dining etiquetteHot on the heels of our discussion about how not to gain weight over the summer recruiting season, we thought we’d round up some of the readers’ top tips on dining etiquette, collected from our last discussion on the topic. Ladies, what is your top tip for dining etiquette? What etiquette mistakes do you see interns and summer associates making that you wish you could correct, and what mistakes did you make? 

  1. Don’t be the odd one out. To prevent awkward situations, e.g., ending up as the only person eating an appetizer while everyone waits for you to finish so they can have their entrees, feel free to ask your colleagues if they’re planning on ordering an app or starting with a main course. If they don’t order drinks, don’t order a drink. And, although it probably goes without saying, don’t make a habit of choosing the most expensive thing on the menu.
  2. Choose wisely. This classic advice is worth sharing: Don’t order something that’s hard to eat and/or likely to be messy.
  3. Avoid appearing “high-maintenance.” When you order, don’t ask too many questions of the server (remember that waitress scene in “When Harry Met Sally“?), and don’t make a zillion modifications to your meal.
  4. Don’t make a big deal about special dietary requirements. Meaning: a few questions or exclusions are fine — a 15 minute interrogation on different menu options isn’t. Check out our posts on eating gluten-free or being the only vegetarian at a business lunch where there’s nothing you can eat for more guidance. If you need to make a game plan, consider calling the restaurant ahead of time with your questions (so that you don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining your requirements and ordering your food).

  1. Go with the flow. Try not to eat much faster or much slower than others; you’ll feel awkward if your plate is empty long before your colleagues’ or if everyone’s waiting around for you to finish.
  2. Mind your manners. Put your napkin in your lap as soon as you’re seated, and leave it on the chair if you have to get up for any reason (not the table). Don’t pick up that fork until everyone’s food has arrived — it’s safest to wait until your host has started eating or invited everyone to do so. And treat the restaurant staff kindly; besides that the fact that it’s just nice to do, it creates a good impression with colleagues.
  3. Be prepared to make conversation. Take a look at the newspaper that morning and pick out a story or two to mention (not an ultra-controversial one), and maybe have a couple of work topics ready. And don’t just talk about yourself — ask others about themselves as well.
  4. Make sure your shoes are walkable. If your regular office shoes are so high and/or uncomfortable that everyone has to slow down to match your speed, switch your lunchtime footwear to more comfortable shoes.
  5. Choose your seat carefully. Try to avoid sitting where you’ll be stuck only talking to one person. Is there someone at work you’ve been meaning to talk to? Try to sit near her. Here’s a handy infographic about picking a seat at a table.
  6. Limit your smartphone use. Put your phone on silent/vibrate and don’t take phone calls during lunch. If you really have to keep an eye on emails, do it discreetly — and if you have to take a call, step away from the table and apologize sincerely upon your return.

Ladies, anything to add? What are your top tips for dining etiquette that young business women should know? 

Updated for clarity.  

Pictured: Pixabay.

business lunch tips


  1. AnonInfinity :

    Regarding checking your email at lunch–I’d add that if you DO check an email at lunch, do it in the restroom. I can’t think of a situation where a summer associate must check email so urgently he or she has to do it at the table, and it is so rude to look down at your phone while essentially in a job interview.

    • associate :

      I don’t know. I just went on a summer associate lunch during which I had to be on call (I’m an associate). I’m not going to ignore my clients because I’m entertaining. If I had a summer working for me and they weren’t responding because they were at lunch, I’d be annoyed. The summer associate should just warn the person they are lunching with that they are on an active project and may need to be responsive. Everyone understands.

      • Late to the party, but summer associates generally don’t have their work email set up on their phones right? I’ve been at 3 firms with summer associate programs, including the firm where I was a summer associate, and none of them have ever given the summers remote access.

        Separately, if you’re an associate and you’re being so demanding of a summer that they can’t give their undivided attention to the partners who are taking them to lunch, you need to slow your roll. You’re going to get in a ton of trouble if your firm decides they really like a summer associate who then turns down the offer because you were a d*ck to them about being unavailable for an hour. Summers are not first years and you need to adjust your expectations accordingly.

        • Disagree on all accounts. Summers have had remote access since at least 2007 at my firm, including blackberries / iPhones when those became a thing in the business world. If summers are getting real work its completely normal to expect them to respond during lunch. I think the appropriate approach is to warn people that you are working on X project and something might come up over lunch.

      • As an eighth year at a firm, if a summer was on a time-sensitive project, I would view the best approach as checking in with the primary partner / associate on the project an hour or so before lunch to say: “Touching base with you before heading to lunch with partner X – we have a reservation at 12:30 and I expect to be back in the office by 2 p.m. Is there anything that you need for the project before I go? I plan to return to task Y as soon as I am back and will be happy to help with anything else you need.” That way, the partner / associate is in the know, and likely won’t attempt to get in touch during the hour and a half or so that you are at lunch.

  2. I’ve got to disagree with #4 on special dietary restrictions unless I’m reading it wrong. If Kat is saying it’s no big deal to bring up restrictions then we agree. If she is saying what I think she is saying, don’t make a big deal out of them, then no, we don’t agree. If you have special dietary restrictions, do whatever advocacy you need to do to make sure you are safe. I call the restaurant ahead of time to figure out what I can order. But, I still make sure the server knows that I am the one with the restriction. And if my food comes and it looks like they might have forgotten, I ask. And if they did screw up, I will send it back (NICELY) because I just can’t eat a food I’m allergic to in the interest of being polite. I don’t scream and shout and make a scene but I make sure the server is aware and clear of the issue.

    My order usually sounds like this. Hi, I called ahead about my gluten and dairy allergy. I was told it was safe to order the burger without the bun and the fries from the dedicated fryer. I’ll have that please.

    If the burger comes back with cheese or a bun I politely get the server’s attention and say, “I was the one with the gluten/dairy allergy. Unfortunately, I can’t just scrape it off. Could I have another without it please?”

    If it comes over with a mystery sauce, same thing – “Hi, I have the gluten and dairy allergy. I didn’t know this had a sauce. Can you double check for me that the sauce is safe?” This might sound overkill but about 30% of the time the server comes back and says “oh no, thanks for asking, you can’t have that! Let me get another.”

    But, I don’t complain to the rest of the table about it. I try to sit on an end so I can talk to the server without disrupting everyone’s conversation.

    • To be more precise, I don’t have allergies but medical restrictions and I usually don’t use the word allergy for gluten/dairy and reserve that for my true allergies. Often the server will call it an allergy and I don’t correct them. I will usually start by just saying “I can’t have gluten or dairy.”

    • Veronica Mars :

      I think Kat meant in the way that we shouldn’t be embarrassed for having any allergies or concerns, that it’s so normal that we shouldn’t think that we’re raising a fuss about it. Just be direct and honest and no one will bat an eye. At least, I hope that’s how she meant it.

    • Yeah, I read that as “don’t take up the whole lunch hour discussing diet-friendly options with the server,” not “don’t bring up your restriction.”

      This is an example where I think [email protected]’s being out of the workforce for awhile comes through — there are SO MANY dietary restrictions (whether allergies or preferences) that have become more familiar with everyone over the last 5 years or so (such as gluten), that if you’re grabbed on the way to lunch and don’t have time to call the restaurant in advance, etc., quietly inquiring with the server when he/she comes to take your order is not an issue.

      • Meg Murry :

        I think #3 and #4 go hand in hand. If you need to make modifications or get clarification on the menu because there are things you can’t eat, do so. But if there is a dish that will probably work with no changes, or only asking for 1 or 2 things to be on the side, that’s better than asking for a half dozen changes or substitutions – because the more changes you ask for, the more likely it is to take a long time and/or to arrive the first time screwed up. Or limit yourself to asking about only 1 or 2 dishes, and then settle on your Plan B boring item if necessary. For instance, asking “Is the risotto vegetarian, or is it made with chicken stock?”, is fine, but if it won’t work for you, move onto the Plan B instead of continuing to ask the server about 4 other dishes on the menu.

        But I think part of #4 also is not to go on and on about it. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, your co-workers don’t need to hear a monologue on what made you decide to become one or the evils of eating meat. If you are on a restrictive diet for weight loss, just order something lighter or smaller or get sauce on the side, etc, and don’t go on and on about how horribly restrictive diet ABC is.

      • + 1 I think the idea that having dietary requirements is something to hide ended at least five years ago.

    • Anonymous :

      I’m a vegetarian and I’ve never had a problem, but I have been out to lunch with “that person” who is a vegetarian who can’t read a menu and feels the need to have a 20 minute conversation about their diet, asking for a rundown on all the vegetarian options on the menu. This is despite the fact that everything is printed on the menu, often with a helpful icon next to it, and as a lifelong vegetarian they should know that it’s ok to ask for a menu option like a salad without the bacon or whatever add-on meat is in there. I am assuming she saying not to be that person.

    • I’ve been a vegetarian for many years. Often, there are items on a menu that I really want, if they can be modified or determined to be vegetarian (ex, pasta without the chicken, or making sure the tomato bisque is not made with chicken broth). If I am out with a friend, I might ask the server… but if it’s a business lunch, I’ll just try to order a different item that is most certainly vegetarian already.

      That’s the way I read her advice – just try to be unobtrusive about it so that the event can flow.

      And yeah, please, don’t be “that person” who asks someone about their dietary restrictions. No, I don’t want to talk about why I became vegetarian almost twenty years ago. Seriously, please, don’t ask grown-ups to discuss their eating habits.

    • anonveggie :

      As a vegetarian, I think “don’t make a big deal” means “don’t make a big deal” No one wants to sit around waiting to order while someone takes forever and tells the server all about about their diet, etc. Unless you have multiple specific allergies/dietary restrictions, which is rare, it shouldn’t take that long to order food that will work for you. You can eat appropriate food for your diet without ending up being “that person.”

  3. I wouldn’t apologize excessively for taking a phone call at a business lunch. It’s work and they get that. A quick “sorry” will be fine if anything.

    • Anonymous :

      But not if you’re a summer associate. Or most non-urgent calls. That is what voice-mail is for.

      And if you *have* to take a call, excuse yourself and step away from the table.

  4. Of these 10, I’d focus on 1 (# of courses consistency with other diners), 6 (courteous w/ staff), 7 (be prepared to be interesting), and 8 (don’t be a baby giraffe).

    Having dietary restrictions or ordering questions — is not as big of a deal. Quietly ask the server when he/she comes to take your order, though, rather than making the whole table listen to it. If the server is just standing on one end of the table and shouting, you can ask him/her to come over after taking others’ orders.

    Summers these days do need to keep tabs on email sometimes. If you’re expecting something which needs a quick response, proactively apologize to your fellow diners (“hey, sorry to keep this out, I’m expecting….”)

    • Anonymous :

      Re the last point, I don’t think that non-summers think that summers do substantive work, much less work that requires them to check a device during a meal. It just looks like the person you’re taking to lunch is checking out. And if you’re eating with a partner, don’t tell that partner that you’re checking for an e-mail from XYZ third year (the summer should tell XYZ that he/she is having lunch with ABC partner to manage expectations that way, instead).

      For all junior people — learn how to wean yourselves from your gadgets for the hour it takes to eat lunch with a person. It will make you come across so much better.

      • AnonInfinity :

        As a summer I remember doing substantive work, but nothing that was so urgent I couldn’t take an hour or so in the middle of the day to have lunch with a partner. I agree about your approach–tell anyone who might email you that you’ll be with ABC for lunch. Most people are understanding.

        • yeah, I agree with all of this. The point I was trying to make was that (1) general rule is to leave your phone put away/on vibrate, BUT (2) if you are actually staffed on something where Assigning Partner needs you to be attentive while you’re at lunch with Lunching Partner, believe me, Lunching Partner will *get it* when you tell him/her that you’re sorry but you do need to quickly check your emails between courses.

    • Honest question: do summers now get work e-mail on their cell phones? I haven’t kept up on this, but I know even a few years ago it was really unusual in my market (Midwest, not Chicago). So if a summer was checking their phone over lunch, I would assume it was personal (and therefore rude) unless they said “I’m working on [thing] with [so and so] and she asked me to be available during lunch.” I’m also a decent human being, so checking for sick kid calls from daycare (if expected), runaway pet, ill family member, etc. would be OK as long as the summer noted it up front in an apologetic way.

      • Summers have gotten personal devices with firm email access in the biglaw firms I’m familiar with for at least the last 5-7 years that (Biglaw Chicago). Debatable how crucial their work is, but definitely possible they are getting work emails.

  5. Anonymous :

    When I sit down with a colleague or witness or expert or whoever, I usually ask for separate checks. The last time, the male lawyer insisted on paying after I asked for separate checks. To be fair, he is in private practice and I am in non-profit so, presumably, he has more money. But, I was asking for help from his organization. I probably should have asked for the check entirely. I hate the whole fight over the check game. What do you all do?

    • This 100% depends on the relationship between you and the person you are eating with, but no matter what, I assume if I am eating lunch with someone for business reasons, the cost of the lunch is a business expense, not personal. So I pay very little mind to the check. There are certain circumstances where it’s obvious who is paying (if I take a client to lunch) and sometimes I offer to get it “this time” if I’m networking, but it still goes on my business card. If I’m just having lunch with another attorney in my office for fun, one of us will ask for separate checks at some point, but I think that’s a given.

  6. Senior Attorney :

    I don’t think separate checks are standard. I think it’s more usual to either split evenly or for someone to pick up the tab. Honestly, if you are meeting with your witness over lunch, I don’t know why you aren’t paying.

  7. OfCounsel :

    In my view there is a huge difference between a medical/ethical/religious limitation on what you can/do eat and being a picky eater. I will give people a huge pass on the first; the second gets pretty tiresome and makes you look high maintenance. I took a summer our to lunch last year who essentially asked the kitchen to make her a custom dish

    • Anonymous :

      The lunch wins as an effective screening tool. I might not no-offer this person, but I wouldn’t pick her for my group.

  8. Anonymous :

    Here’s another one — get yourself acquainted with/used to eating the main foods served at fancy restaurants in your city — usually steak, chicken, risotto for a veggie dish, etc. Even better if you can get yourself eating 1 type of fish. I say this as a picky hater who has learned to eat things she doesn’t like bc it is REALLY irritating if you are the summer associate who is making faces, can’t find anything on the menu.

    Took a summer to lunch last yr who went on and on about all the things he doesn’t eat. And it basically came down to — he lives on grilled chicken and protein shakes and has to be forced to eat anything else. On top of that the kid was goggling under the table (as if I couldn’t see his phone) what edamame was. You know you’re coming for a 10 week job interview — why not prepare yourself a bit in advance? And it’s cool if you don’t like a lot of foods — I don’t either — but I realize eating is a part of socializing, so I’ve learned to live with the simpler things and eat enough/push enough around my plate to not make these forced lunches awkward.

    • I try to cut people some slack, not for being picky (which I am but take great pains to hide) but for not knowing what things are. Before I moved to the west coast I probably didn’t know what edamame was either.

      There was a story that one of my former recruiting coordinators used to tell about two partners who took a summer associate out to a dim sum restaurant for lunch. When the waiter brought around the mu shu pancakes she apparently mistook them for some sort of warmed towel and proceeded to hold one up to her face. The partners, in part to keep from embarrassing her and probably also to hide their giggles, did the same. This was not my summer class, so I can’t verify the truth of the story, but I always liked the idea that they went to some effort not to make someone feel bad about an honest mistake.

      • Anonymous :

        I had heard of crabcakes, but could never afford them (and I hate picking crabs, so I had no idea what I was missing out on). I got served one at a SA event and wondered (not aloud, fortunately) if it was some sort of really great potato pancake. I am *so* glad that I didn’t have a shellfish allergy.

      • This is a great story that reflects well on the firm. How kind of the partners!
        I mispronounced edamame for 5 or more years (including as a partner at a major firm). I think those things tend to reflect on the person’s socio-economic background and for that reason, try to cut people a lot of slack. I do advise summers I’m mentoring to check the restaurant menu on line in advance whenever possible so they can google foods in advance/figure out what to eat.

      • Anonymous :

        I love that story! I laughed out loud, but how kind of the partners to do that. And I totally agree that not knowing what edamame is or how to pronounce it is hardly something to dig a poor summer intern for! You might as well just say “you have to come from money to work here.”
        -Signed, someone from a middle-class, educated family who grew up in flyover country and probably had no freaking clue what edamame was when I was a summer associate

      • There is no need to google edamame – just try it. Unless you have food allergies, does it really matter if you know what it is? Just try it, and expand your tastes.

  9. Most of this advice really rubbed me the wrong way. Certainly there’s advice to be given on manners and etiquette: wait until everyone’s food is at the table to eat; don’t discuss religion; which of the many utensils and glasses to use for what. But much of this advice feels to me like instructing people to apologize for being alive. Don’t make a big deal about food restrictions? Don’t eat at the wrong speed? For heaven’s sake, they’re called restrictions not preferences for a reason, and I don’t believe I have ever commented on the speed with which anyone ate so long as they weren’t spraying food everywhere.

    Women get enough advice instructing us to be small and unobtrusive thank you very much. Order what you want and eat it as fast as you want, and just be freaking polite while you do it.

    • Anonymous :

      Come on. I think you know what people are saying. If you can’t have dairy — don’t have it; tell the waiter etc. But do NOT spend 15 min of the table’s time describing exactly what happens if you consume dairy. This advice applies to men and women. I posted above re the summer associate who held us hostage for an hr telling us everything he doesn’t eat — it was a guy — and it was still an unacceptable use of time for the associates/partners who took 60-90 min out of their day to take you out.

      • You have experience with someone being annoying about his preferences. I on the other hand have experience with people giving me flak for being lactose intolerant and not being willing to just eat the pasta with cream sauce anyway because “it’s only a little bit”.

        Your story was about someone who spent an excessive amount of time discussing his preferences. The advice is not to make a big deal about “requirements.” There is a big difference between the two things.

        • If you followed this advice, you would’ve avoided your colleagues comments on your order. A quick question about dairy content, and a switch to marinara when you found ill it you couldn’t eat option A. Quick and smooth.

  10. Bailey270 :

    To go with point #1, when I was an associate taking interviewees/summers out, I would either volunteer what I planned to get before we ordered (“I think I’m going to start with the XX salad, then get the burger, what are you thinking about?”), or I would order first, instead of trying to be polite and defer to the summer because, as a summer, I hated having to be the first person to order and having to guess if we were doing multiple courses, alcoholic drinks, etc. if it hadn’t been discussed before we ordered.

    • Anonymous :

      I don’t like announcing to the table what I’m getting — unless we’re somehow talking about food — but as a senior associate, yeah, I’d make sure to order first to set the tone. And as a summer, I’d have an app and entrée picked out and then would hope the associates went first and would just do what they did — i.e. if they got an app, get one; if not, skip it.

      • There’s always “hm, the xyz looks good” or “anyone planning on appetizers?” They don’t announce your plans, but do allow people to figure out where the flow is, so they can go with it.

    • AnonInfinity :

      As a summer (and even now in some circumstances), I would try to push off ordering first. If the waiter came to me first, I’d say something like, “I need a second to decide, but I can go last!” That way I could see what others were ordering first. Or I’d just order an entree and, if everyone else ordered a salad, would tell the waiter at the end that a salad sounded good and I’d have one as well.

    • When I go out to eat on a busness lunch, I ALWAYS get a salad, usueally a COBB salad, but lately I have gotten WALDARF salad’s for the summer time b/c there is less calorie’s in that. Otherwise, I risk putting on weight, and this is bikini season in the Hamton’s and NO ONE is interested in dateing, let alone MARRYING me if I have a big tuchus. Otherwise, I would eat and eat and eat, and would NOT care. After I marry and have kid’s, I realy will follow my OWN diet, which will NOT be a salad diet. YAY!!!!

    • Anonymous :

      Yes! I’m a senior manager at a big 4 firm and have found that when I take my team to dinner I have to order first to signal that it’s ok to order a drink.

  11. california biz :

    I think the point of all of these is ‘don’t be the one who makes it all about you & your special snowflake-ness.” Whether that’s what you eat, your email/phone, your shoes, your time, your conversation, etc. Be aware of the group, and be aware that this is a work function. A business lunch should be about business primarily, with the lunch (& whatever you’d normally associate with “lunch”) far, far in the background.

  12. I went through a period when I had extremely limited dining options, so I really had to study the menu to find something I could eat. Waitstaff occaisonally picked up on it, but I preferred to go off menu and ask for something simple rather than try to explain it all or have the chef come out to double-check on whatever special requests I made. As long as the request was something really common and basic–a baked potato, pasta marinara, a simple green salad– I don’t think it was ever a problem.
    If you’re out with someone above above you in the food chain, it’s easy to defer to them on whether or not to take a phone call. Just glance at the phone right away and say “it’s Big Shot C, probably about X” or “my kid’s school” They should be able to give a quick nod of approval or tell you to let it go to vm (unless it’s about your kid–that’s one you’ve got to decide). I also think it’s courteous for anyone, anywhere in the foodchain, to say “I’ll have call my spouse later” as they send a call to vm or on return to the table say something like “clients can get so concerned about Y” Nothing too revealing, of course, but it can be distracting when you’re with someone who gets multiple mystery calls.

  13. Wildkitten :

    Paging K – you’re not alone.

    • Wildkitten :


  14. I’m a partner is a big law firm and I do a lot of recruiting lunches. If you have dietary restrictions, you should do what you need to do to be safe but draw as little attention to it as possible. Some people have actual food allergies; some people have food preferences that they are entitled to; and some people enjoy having attention paid to their restrictions and/or preferences. I have seen all three in my professional and personal life. In an interview lunch, avoid being in the third group.

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