It’s Never “Just Lunch”

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 host and guest in these situations. As always, I look forward to any thoughts you might have after reading…

Whether you are the host or the guest at a lunch, advance reconnaissance is necessary. As always, it’s never “just lunch,” Despite what the dating service may say, both host and guest need to do their homework once a lunch date has been agreed upon. If you are the host, be aware that your prep work will need to be more in-depth.

As the host: if you are unfamiliar with the restaurant, you will want to have done—if possible– an on-site reconnaissance ahead of time to check the noise level and decide which table best suits your purpose. This is important because, if it’s a business lunch, you don’t want to find yourself sitting knee-to-knee at a corner table with your guest, being lulled by contempo-pop or trying to make yourself heard over hip hop. I’m also particular about tables that are too close together, i.e. I don’t like it. I need room for scope. I don’t want to feel like the person next to me is going to ask for a bite of something off my plate.

If you can’t arrange to do an on-site check ahead of time, arrange to get there fifteen minutes early to triage any elements you can—get yourself moved to a different table, a quieter area, ask to have the music turned down, etc.

You will want to have gotten the name of the manager or staff person who will be responsible for ensuring things run smoothly and, if possible, introduced yourself to him or her.

You will want to know where the bathrooms are located.

You will want to have inquired whether there are vegetarian options on the menu, should your guest be vegetarian. [FYI: chicken and fish are not vegetables.] If there is nothing immediately apparent, ask if a vegetarian option can be prepared if necessary. It generally can.

You will want to have made sure they take your ‘brand’ of credit card. Some places don’t take American Express. Some places only take American Express.

As the guest: you will want to research the restaurant on-line before you arrive. In addition to confirming the address [if it’s a restaurant that’s unknown to you] you will want to check whether there is parking is 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.

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 a fois gras appetizer followed by a whole, de-boned fish if all 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.

Frances Cole Jones is the President of Cole Media Management and author of How to Wow: Proven Strategies for Selling Your (Brilliant) Self in any Situation and The Wow Factor: The 33 Things You Must (and Must Not) Do to Guarantee Your Edge in Today’s Business World. Attention Job Seekers: Frances has also created an app for the iPhone and iPad called “Interview Survival Kit.” For more information visit Apple’s iTunes.

Frances is always happy to answer questions; and can be reached at