The New Business Lunch Etiquette: Five Tips for Today’s Foodies

If Don Draper asks you to lunch, you'll definitely need to reserve in the restaurant's smoking section. In 1965.

Business lunches have been around since before the days of Don Draper and martinis at 1PM. While the rules used to be a bit more relaxed back then in terms of boozing, business lunches have always had a reputation for being buttoned-up events. However, since we’ve become a nation of foodies, have the rules for breaking bread at noon relaxed at all? I checked in with careers and HR executive Liz Ryan to find out.

Ryan, who advises careerists and consults for major companies at Ask Liz Ryan, thinks things have, in fact, relaxed. “Food and drink have become a conversation piece in our culture. Sharing a meal is definitely a way to increase your bond with a business associate.” Ryan shared five tips for making sure you make the most of your next business lunch in the United States of Arugula.

1. Choose carefully. Where you lunch says a lot about you, so select with care. Says Ryan, “It’s a marker if your initial suggestion is the charmless hotel-lobby restaurant and the standard club sandwich. It’s going to change the intimacy level of conversation. Conversely, there are certain restaurants where you have to take off your shoes or eat unfamiliar — or just truly spectacular — food, and that is definitely going to impact the quality of the conversation.” She cautions, “There can be a power segment in an invitation, if one person is suggesting where to eat. To avoid that, always ask, if not where your lunch companion likes to eat but, what she likes to eat to inform your choice.”

2. Booze or lose? Lunch isn’t always as much fun as dinner because most folks don’t usually have a cocktail with it. But what if Mr. or Ms. Influence (the person with the most power or who’s doing you a favor) sits down and orders up a perfect Manhattan? Do you jump on the bandwagon? As long as you normally enjoy an adult beverage from time to time, sure. “Even if you’re just nursing it, you order a drink, so that you’re joining in,” says Ryan. What if the drink just sits there? “What’s the big deal? It’s eight bucks. This is about social finesse,” she notes.

3. Bond over your burger. Ryan states, “I think a meal is a fantastic way to go to that deeper level of intimacy in the conversation – if the people can get there.” Unless your lunch guest orders a drink, your lunch may be lacking in the social lubricant that is booze. Liquor is definitely quicker, but you can use the menu to establish a connection with your companion. If you’re worried about keeping a good flow of conversation, do a little research beforehand so you have some fun tidbits, such as, “Did you know they filmed scenes from Mad Men here?” or, “The chef here recently won a James Beard Foundation Award.”

4. Shareability is likability. M.F.K. Fisher said, “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” But what happens when your lunch mate says, “Oh my goodness, this is the best ice cream I have ever had! You must try it!”? Unless you’re a legitimate germaphobe, Ryan says to go for it, especially if the person in the more powerful position is offering. She notes, “Back in the day, you couldn’t really be that forward about being a foodie, but now it’s a way to declare yourself. Most people are going to say, ‘Hand it over!’ It’s a way to show you’re comfortable in your own skin, and this is the quality that gets people hired anyway. It’s about likability!”

5. Check yourself. Money makes people act funny, so be especially mindful of the check. Ryan advises, “If you’ve met previously and this is just a get-together, there’s no expectation. However, if that person is doing you a favor by providing guidance and offering to make introductions, while there may not be an expectation, you’ll want to make the gesture. No one really expects free lunch, so your guest will probably say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t let you pay for that,’ and you just wind up splitting the check.” Not offering — or worse yet, expecting the other party to pick up the tab — can have consequences. “If you are going to extend yourself for this person, by making introductions and giving them advice, and you get that bad signal, then you may realize you really don’t feel comfortable recommending him.”

Planning your next business lunch? Check out OpenTable’s Great for Lunch Diners’ Choice lists! We’ve got the best picks for lunch in a city near you, including Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los AngelesMinneapolisNew York, Philadelphia, and  San FranciscoSeattle, and Washington, D.C. — and almost everywhere in between.


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