Business Dining Etiquette Tips to Live By

business dinner

What Is Business Dining Etiquette?

Business dining etiquette refers to behaviors and skills that equip you to successfully conduct business during a meal.

If you are in a relationship-driven career, chances are you have had many opportunities to conduct business at the dining table. Sharing a meal with prospective or established clients is an opportunity to build rapport and start or strengthen a relationship. Good food in a comfortable setting allows for conversation beyond business, so you can get to know your client on a more personal (but not too personal) level. Adding another perspective to the relationship enables you to provide excellent service and meet your client’s needs. 

Knowing and practicing business dining etiquette allows you to focus on the relationship instead of which fork to use. Of course, there is more to dining gracefully than knowing which utensil to use. From extending the invitation to paying the bill, your aim is to create an enjoyable experience, put your guest at ease, and professionally represent yourself and your company.

Impact of Dining Etiquette on Networking

Developing fruitful, long-lasting relationships involves interpersonal skills, consistency, and genuine effort. Whether your meeting occurs at a fine dining establishment, casual outdoor café, or a sports event, your ability to engage and interact gracefully with others over a meal will determine the quality of your relationships.

Tips for Better Business Dining

Dress Code

If you are hosting the event, inform your guests of the venue’s dress code. The occasion, location, and venue will determine the dress code and attire. When I choose an outfit for a business or social dining event, I want to show courtesy and respect to the host or guest and an understanding of the audience. The three general terms predominantly used to describe business attire are formal, professional, and business casual. Many details and options define each, all of which help you don the right look.

Your appearance and attire are significant nonverbal cues of your professionalism and savvy. As the first impression, it sets the tone and outcome of your interactions. Your aim is to be polished, comfortable, and appropriately dressed as a business professional.

Dietary Restrictions

As the host, you manage all the event details. The first step is choosing a restaurant with a setting and menu you know your guests will enjoy. Avoid asking if they have food allergies or dietary restrictions. Instead, ask what types of food or restaurants they prefer, which should give you enough information to make a wise choice. 

With this knowledge, select two restaurants, email your guest a link for both, and ask where they would like to dine.

If you are a guest and have specific dietary requirements, contact the host or dining venue to determine if you need to request an accommodation. This is common, so please feel at ease with your request.


Being on time for a planned event demonstrates consideration for the host and thoughtfulness for everyone’s time. It signifies professionalism, a good work ethic, and commitment to fulfilling obligations. 

Punctuality shows reliability and gives a positive first impression. It also allows you to prepare physically and mentally for the event. I have clients who require their employees to arrive a minimum of ten minutes before the meeting start time. In other words, arrive early to be on time.

Conversation Skills

Conversational skills build rapport and instill trust in social and business situations. How do you develop these skills? Begin with small talk and active listening. Small talk is a friendly, polite exchange of casual information, and active listening entails concentrating on what people say so you can understand the message and respond thoughtfully. These essential business skills require strategic planning and practice to ensure rewarding conversations.

In business, be personable, not personal. Be well informed and prepared to discuss

  • local and world events;
  • top sports events;
  • latest books, movies, podcasts, and theater productions; 
  • community-sponsored and nonprofit work; and 
  • the food, venue, and weather. 

To be a good conversationalist, avoid talking too much about yourself and focus on getting to know the other person. Off-limit topics include politics, personal finances, religious beliefs, and your or their health. Never gossip or speak negatively about anyone or anything.

Alcohol Intake

It is good practice to limit your alcohol use because it can impair judgment and behavior and reflect poorly on you and your company. Being mindful of alcohol intake ensures clear and effective communication during business discussions and avoids health, safety, legal, and liability issues. Know that toasting with a nonalcoholic beverage is perfectly acceptable. 

Using Your Napkin

Treat a cloth and paper napkin the same way. It will be in one of three places: to the left of your plate, on your plate, or on the right in your beverage glass. If someone inadvertently takes your napkin, don’t call attention to the gaffe—discretely ask your server for a replacement. 

You often hear that placing your napkin on your lap is the first thing you do after sitting down at the table. However, three things may happen first: an introduction, a welcome, or a prayer. If these occur, look to the host and follow their lead when they place their napkin on their lap to signal the meal has begun. If there is no host at the table, feel free to be the first to pick up your napkin, fold it in half under the table, and position the folded edge at your waist. 

Blot your lips before you sip to maintain a clean rim on your beverage glasses. If you drop your napkin on the floor, ask your server for a replacement. Never pick it up off of the ground. When momentarily leaving the table, place your napkin on your chair. 

Never place a soiled napkin on the table until the meal ends, at this time, pick it up and lay it loosely to the left of the place setting. Never fold or crumple a soiled napkin or lay it on the plate.

Note: The meal ends when the host has finished and laid their napkin loosely to the left of their plate.

Break Bread with Hands

Eat your bread or rolls one small piece at a time. Your bread and butter (B&B) plate is located at the upper left of your place setting. You will find a butter spreader placed horizontally at the top edge or vertically on the right-hand edge of the plate. Both positions have the cutting edge facing toward the plate.

Place a portion of butter on your B&B plate, hold your bread over the plate, and break off one bite-size piece. Never use a knife to cut your roll or bread. Use your butter spreader to add a small portion of butter to the bread. Repeat for each bite of bread.

Phone Usage

To avoid phone distractions at a business dinner, silence notifications and keep your phone out of sight. Inform your guest beforehand if you are expecting a call you must answer.

Stay engaged in conversation, excuse yourself discreetly for an urgent call, and be mindful and professional, respecting your guest’s time and attention.

Stacking Dishes

Refrain from rearranging your place setting, pushing away or stacking your dishes, or handing empty or used items to your server. This will reflect poorly on you and highlight your lack of dining etiquette knowledge.

Ordering Etiquette

Put your guest at ease by mentioning a few high-priced items. This lets them know they can order the more expensive dish. Do not say, “May I have the salmon?” “I’ll do the salmon,” or “Give me the salmon.” Instead, say, “I would like the salmon.”

To-Go Boxes

“To get a to-go box or not to get a to-go box”— is the question. There are different dining experiences, and several factors determine the right choice. In a formal or client meeting, it is poor form to ask for a to-go box, and it reduces your professionalism. Consume 90 percent of the meal to respect your host and the meeting. If dining with colleagues or longtime customers, such a request may be acceptable.

Handling Unforeseen Mishaps

Have you ever knocked over a beverage on the table? How about cutting a piece of food and watching it fly off your plate? Everyone has experienced a mishap at the table. If you are the host, your main objective is to ease your guest’s embarrassment. Act quickly and smoothly, make light of the situation, and clean up, asking the server for assistance if necessary. 

Thank-You Notes and Follow-Ups

It is good business etiquette to thank your guests. 

Follow up within two to three days with a handwritten note, an email, or possibly social media to express your appreciation for their attendance. Mention a specific interaction and tell them how their presence added to the enjoyment of the evening. 

These steps ensure guests feel valued and build lasting relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there foods to avoid ordering at a business dinner?

Yes, there are many. Here’s a sampling: blueberries; poppy seeds; heavily seasoned items; hard, crusty bread or rolls; long strands of pasta; shellfish that require cracking; fish, meat, or fowl with bones; French onion soup; tacos; corn on the cob; ribs; chicken wings . . . the list goes on. 

When should you talk about business topics at a business dinner?

It is appropriate to start discussing business after exchanging pleasantries and ordering the meal.

Can you wear jeans to a business dinner? 

Not all business meals are formal. So, yes, jeans may be acceptable. They should be in excellent condition, well fitted, and without embellishments or faded, torn, or worn areas.

What questions are not fair to ask at a business dinner?

Table talk is a key part of the overall business dining experience. Ask questions that show genuine interest in getting to know your guest. Be personable but not too personal. Begin questions with what, where, when, how, or tell me about. Examples: “How do you . . . ?” “What inspired you . . . ?” “What are some key highlights . . . ?” and “Tell me about . . .”.

To maintain professionalism and respect boundaries, avoid questions of personal financial matters, romantic life, family dynamics, age, marital status, plans to start a family, children, health conditions, and religion and politics.


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