How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Business Dining

Written by Judy Colbert


business meals and etiquetteYour mother told you never to talk with food in your mouth and to ask to leave the table. But who was there to guide you during that first business lunch years ago?

Chances are you winged it, quit eating when everyone else did, tried not to spill your drink and have continued to do so all these years. But now you're doing the inviting -- and the paying. So maybe it's time to go back and learn the right way to conduct a business meal, to teach those young turks how it's done, of course.

Anyone, even your CEO, could use a business dining etiquette primer. After all, good manners are good business. Here are some basic suggestions:
Ask your guest if he or she has any food preferences or avoidances (e.g., allergies, religious prohibitions) and then, unless your guest has requested dining at a specific restaurant, decide where you will dine. Choose a restaurant you know and where the staff knows you; this isn't the time to try the unfamiliar.
  • If you are entertaining guests from a foreign country, research local customs. 
  • Reserve early to be sure the restaurant won't be closed for a special party, renovations or vacation that day.
  • Sign a credit slip or leave sufficient funds to cover the tab (including tax, gratuities and alcohol) before guests arrive so there will be no discussion, dispute or awkward moment about paying when the check arrives. If that's not possible (say, the restaurant doesn't accept credit cards), make sure the waiter or maitre d' knows that you should receive the bill. The bill is always paid by the person who did the inviting.
  • Alcohol consumption on your part should be minimal, if you drink at all, particularly if you're driving.
  • Order items that can be eaten easily and neatly. This is not the time for spaghetti, ribs or other finger foods. Feel free to suggest menu items if you know they are outstanding or the restaurant's signature dishes.
  • Unless you know your guest smokes, opt for the no-smoking section.
  • Place your guest at the preferred seat, where he or she can look out at the restaurant.
  • Place your napkin on your lap AFTER everyone has been seated. Place your napkin on your chair should you leave between courses (ignore that strange waiter who insists on refolding it and placing it on the table). At the end of the meal, leave it to the left of your plate. Do not push your plate toward the center of the table when you've finished your meal. Do not turn your coffee cup upside down to indicate you don't want a beverage.
  • If you have a complaint that seriously affects your dining experience (boisterous next table neighbors, loud music, rudeness from the staff), go to the maitre d' and explain what is displeasing you. If it doesn't affect the meal but is below your expected service, mention it the next day. If your guest is the one who's being obnoxious, end the meal and leave as quickly as possible.
  • Tips in fine restaurants average 20% of the bill, before tax, with another 7% to the captain, maitre d' or sommelier, and $1 per item to the coatroom attendant.
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Judy Colbert has written, edited and contributed to a dozen books, including The Spa Guide, The Factory Outlet Guide to the Mid-Atlantic States and Zagat's guide to spas and resorts. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, American Way, McCalls, and other publications. A native Washingtonian, she resides in suburban Maryland.

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