14 Dining Etiquette Rules You Need To Know

Even if you think you have impeccable manners, this refresher can help you make a better impression during your next business dinner.
Freelance writer/editor/producer, Various online and print publications
November 27, 2013

Eating with someone you don't know well in a professional environment is a tricky situation. On the one hand, you're trying to get to know the person better, but on the other hand, you're also worried about what your eating habits say about you.

The most important thing to remember, says career coach Barbara Pachter, is that you're not there for the food. You are there for business.

In her new book The Essentials Of Business Etiquette, Pachter discusses the dining etiquette rules every professional needs to know:

1. The host should always be in charge.

This means picking an appropriate restaurant and making reservations ahead of time, which is especially important if you're having a business lunch or dinner when it can be busy. The last thing you want is to be told there isn't a table available for you and your guest(s).

Once you're seated, "you need to take charge of the logistics of the meal," Pachter says. This means directing your guests to their seats or recommending menu items in various price ranges.

2. Never pull out someone's chair for them.

It's okay to hold open a door for your guest, but Pachter says you shouldn't pull someone's chair out for them regardless of gender. "Both men and women can pull out their own chairs," she writes. In a business setting, you should leave those social gender rules behind.

3. Consider the restaurant when figuring out dietary restrictions.

"Most people do not impose their dietary choices on others. Nevertheless, you can often judge what to order by the type of restaurant the host chooses." Pachter says. For example, if your boss is a vegetarian but chooses to meet at a steakhouse, "by all means you can order steak," she adds.

4. Keep the food options balanced with your guest.

This means if your guest orders an appetizer or dessert, you should follow suit. "You don’t want to make your guest feel uncomfortable by eating a course alone," Pachter says.

5. Know the utensils' proper locations.

Want an easy trick for remembering where the utensils go? All you need to remember is that "left" has four letters and "right" has five.

"Food is placed to the left of the dinner plate. The words food and left each have four letters; if the table is set properly, your bread or salad or any other food dish, will be placed to the left of your dinner plate," Pachter explains. "Similarly, drinks are placed to the right of the dinner plate, and the words glass and right contain five letters. Any glass or drink will be placed to the right of the dinner plate."

"Left and right also work for your utensils. Your fork (four letters) goes to the left; your knife and spoon (five letters each) go to the right," she adds.

6. Know which utensils to use.

Each course should have its own utensils and all of them may already be in front of you or will be placed in front of you as the dishes are served. In the case that all the utensils are there at the beginning of the meal, a good general rule is to start with utensils on the outside and work your way in as the meal goes on.

Pachter writes: "The largest fork is generally the entrée fork. The salad fork is smaller. The largest spoon is usually the soup spoon. If you are having a fish course, you may see the fish knife and fork as part of the place setting. The utensils above the plate are the dessert fork and spoon, although these may sometimes be placed on either side of the plate or brought in with the dessert."

7. Think "BMW" to remember where plates and glasses go.

Another trick Pachter uses for remembering proper placement of plates and glasses is simple: Remember the mnemonic BMW, which stands for bread, meal and water. "Your bread-and-butter plate is on the left, the meal is in the middle, and your water glass is on the right," Pachter explains.

8. Always break bread with your hands.

Pachter says you should never use your knife to cut your rolls at a business dinner. "Break your roll in half and tear off one piece at a time, and butter the piece as you are ready to eat it."

9. Know the "rest" and "finished" positions.

"Place your knife and fork in the rest position (knife on top of plate, fork across middle of plate) to let the waiter know you are resting," Pachter says. "Use the finished position (fork below the knife, diagonally across the plate) to indicate that you have finished eating."

10. Do not push away or stack your dishes.

"You are not the waiter. Let the wait staff do their jobs," she advises.

11. Do not use the napkin as a tissue.

The napkin should only be used for blotting the sides of your mouth. If you need to blow your nose, Pachter says to excuse yourself to the bathroom.

12. Never ask for a to-go box.

"You are there for business, not for the leftovers," Pachter writes. "Doggie bags are okay for family dinners but not during professional occasions."

13. The host should always pay.

This one can be a bit tricky, explains Pachter. "If you did the inviting, you are the host, and you should pay the bill, regardless of gender. What if a male guest wants to pay? A woman does have some choices. She can say, 'Oh, it’s not me; it is the firm that is paying.' Or she can excuse herself from the table and pay the bill away from the guests. This option works for men as well, and it is a very refined way to pay a bill.

"However, the bottom line is that you don’t want to fight over a bill," she says. "If a male guest insists on paying despite a female host’s best efforts, let him pay."

14. Always say "please" and "thank you" to wait staff.

"Do not complain or criticize the service or food," Pachter says. "Your complaints will appear negative, and it is an insult to your host to criticize."

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Freelance writer/editor/producer, Various online and print publications