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How to Ace the Business Lunch

Maria Trabocchi, co-owner of Fiola, provides insight on how to ace the business lunch. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Forget the sunrise diner special, or candlelit, white tablecloth dinners. If you’re going to eat one meal properly in Washington, D.C., it should be the power lunch. The power lunch is the ideal midday break, a mini-vacation to the day, a chance to hear the lobby pitches while nibbling on veal tagliatelle or steak frites, perhaps eyeing the room to see nearby diners who would warrant a quick tip to Heard on the Hill.  

Even the hard-work, long-hours culture of Capitol Hill is willing to take a brief midday break for a meal, albeit often to Dirksen or Longworth. But on the the occasion that a lunch invitation arrives, and ethics rules are cleared, it’s an opportunity to network, build a relationship, and likely enjoy some delicious food. But even the best of us can falter over an intimidating wine list, mispronounce a multisyllabic entree or feel an afternoon deadline loom before the coffee has been served. So, if you’re fortunate to be on the receiving (or inviting) end to a power lunch, what can you do to ensure smooth sailing?  

Hill Navigator has lots of tips on such things, but we also know when it’s time to bring in the trained professionals. So, along with Roll Call Capitol Hill Editor Jason Dick, we’re joined for lunch by Rebecca Czarniecki, etiquette expert and owner of “Tea with Mrs. B,” a special-event tea room in Falls Church, Va.  

We’ve chosen Fiola as our venue; few couples understand and cater to the power lunch as well as Maria and Fabio Trabocchi, whose restaurants have perennially topped best-of-D.C. lists since first opening in 2011. Fiola, with its proximity to Capitol Hill, has become a regular for many members of Congress for business meals and private parties. Maria Trabocchi knows many of them by name.  

We'll skip the preamble about napkins in laps and feet on the floor — Roll Call readers are far too savvy for such elementary lessons — but Czarniecki’s insights are wise and genial: Make your guests feel comfortable, plan ahead of time and be mindful of time constraints. Such actions are likely to make any lunch-goer feel more at ease. Maria Trabocchi joined us for dessert to echo many of Czarniecki’s business lunch etiquette guidelines, including her list of what not to do when dining out.  

And behold, the guide to acing the business lunch. Enjoy.  

Lunch Is a Time to Sharpen Your Soft Skills: “During a power lunch you get a sense of a person’s soft skills,” Czarniecki said. How a person treats a waiter, host or hostess are not things easily seen in an office setting. The primary focus should be making your lunch guest feel comfortable. “You won’t remember what I said, but you’ll remember how I made you feel,” Czarniecki said. People underestimate the importance of body language and eye contact. At Fiola, Czarniecki critiqued the body language of other restaurant guests. Who was leaning in too far, who appeared not to be listening and who seemed too eager to please by sitting hunched forward on his elbows. Maria Trabocchi said she can tell who the power lunch novices are by the way they sit.  

“Novices sit like they are watching a football game. Sit up straight, be clear. Never sit all the way back.”  

Know Who Is the Leader and Follow Accordingly: Between the two (or more) people at lunch, one is the leader and the other(s) follow. This is not a leadership skills test, but a referendum on who initiated (and will be paying for) the meal, and/or who is the more senior person. The leader’s role is to offer guidance and be up front. Are there time constraints? If you have a 2 p.m. meeting, mention it and order quickly, skipping appetizers. Is there alcohol? The leader should order first and/or encourage others to do so. Thinking about lingering for coffee or dessert? Ask who’d like to join for a cup of coffee. Czarniecki’s rule is that desserts are best left for dinner, but Fiola’s prix fixe Maria’s Light menu (inspired by the namesake) comes with a dessert option. So a win for the sweet tooth.  

The Food: Picky eaters, do homework ahead of time. If you’re not sure what puntarelle or paccheri is, find this out before you go.* If your leader suggests an appetizer or mentions she or he is having the tomato bisque along with their arctic char, order a starter course as well. For price range, stay in the middle. Czarniecki explained her modus operandi on chewing: Take small bites that are manageable. Should someone ask you a question, that means that person won’t be left waiting long. Chew each bites 12 times. “Each bite,” she said, “should be a treat.”  

The Bill: The leader should request the bill, a quick flash of eye contact and the mimed scribble is universally recognized, but those scribbling hands should stay low. “Never wave or raise your hand,” Czarniecki said. When the bill comes, do not look at it. It makes guests uneasy and implies an error or unexpected cost. Slip the credit card in wordlessly. If there is a mistake with the bill, call the restaurant afterward and they’ll take care of it. (Maria Trabocchi assured us on this as well.) “No one wants to be the bearer of bad tidings,” Czarniecki said. “Not a business lunch, nor on a date, or in life in general.”  

Also to avoid: splitting the check. “It makes you look cheap,” Czarniecki said. “If you are inviting people to lunch, you should be ready to pay.”  

Do Your Homework: Aside from having a notion of what to order, know the location you’re going to, how formal it is and how to get there. Don’t blame Metro or Uber if you are late. Come early. And know where the restroom is, lest you’re caught wandering into the bar well. If you’re meeting for the first time, wait in the front with a smile. “First impressions are so important,” Czarniecki said. Check your coat. Ladies, Czarniecki warned, leave the large Longchamps bags at home or check them along with your coat. “Bring a clutch instead,” she said. Staffers should also be mindful of ethics rules. A quick refresher from Roll Call ethics columnist C. Simon Davidson : Capitol Hill staffers may accept a lunch valued under $50, so long as it is not paid for by a registered lobbyist, foreign agent or private entity that retains or employs such individuals.  

Know the Ground Rules for Alcohol: It's not unusual for drinks to accompany a business lunch; the key is to remember who initiates it. The leader — the person who has invited the guest and will be paying — will take the lead if drinks are to be included. Only then should the guest also order.  

“Remember that you don’t have to drink the entire glass,” Czarniecki said. If a server comes to refill, a quick hand above the glass will signal that no more is needed.  

Drinks should be accompanied by a toast. Czarniecki’s rules for toasting: The lunch leader — man or woman — offers the toast. When toasting, it is most important to look one another in the eyes. One person lifts the glass and the other comes close for a tap, rather than two glasses veering toward one another for a loud clink. If one person is singled out to be toasted, they are not to drink to themselves.  

The Things to Avoid: Both Maria Trabocchi and Czarniecki had a long list of what to avoid doing, crediting the casual attitude of younger people with the exuberance of eating out at a nice place. Hill Navigator has sympathy for the latter: There is a thrill to power lunches, especially at lovely restaurants with excellent food and service. But there are a few items worth noting to avoid when attending a business lunch:

  • Taking pictures of food. (Sorry, Instagram.) Phones stay under the table. Need to check your messages? Do so in the bathroom, or explain ahead of time that you’ll need to be doing so.
  • No sharing of dishes unless it’s a family-style appetizer or dessert.
  • Don’t take all the air time. Maybe your toddler is adorable, but not everyone wants to hear about his walking, or at least not without you asking after their family, too. Don’t try and one-up someone’s story, and make an extra effort to engage a quiet guest.
  • Don’t try to be funny. According to Czarniecki, it doesn’t work. Better to be comfortable in your own skin.
  • Watch the arms. Don’t gesture with your silverware. Don’t sit on your hands.
  • Don’t fidget. Tie long hair back if you tend to play with it. Wear studs if you fidget with long earrings.
  • Don’t say “um.” Need a word filler? Czarniecki suggests “well” instead. This applies to all conversations, not just the business lunch.

And finally, remember that etiquette exists to be an equalizer. “It doesn’t matter how much money or experience you have. Proper etiquette you can slip on and your experience will be wonderful. It can’t be purchased; you have to practice,” Czarniecki said. If your guests feel good, the lunch was a success. And that is what all parties — from lunch guests to restaurant owners — want to see happen.  

*Puntarelle is a green vegetable found in salads; paccheri is a tube-like pasta. But you probably knew that already. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.