Restaurant Etiquette and Business Dining in the USA

Posted On: February 17, 2015

When you visit the USA for business or tourism, you may be invited out to eat with your friends or colleagues. This post will provide a high-level overview to restaurant etiquette and business dining in both casual and formal situations in the USA. 


What are the meal times?

If you are planning to go out to eat with your colleagues, in most cases lunch will be the preferred option. Dinner is infrequent. Occasionally, expect to be asked for happy hour, depending on the company or team.

There may be some office cultures that have breakfast meetings or breakfast outings. Since the pandemic, I am not sure how common this is. However, having had worked in central New York and in various cities on the East Coast in the 90s and 2000s, some offices did have occasional breakfast outings. People tend to start early, so they can go home earlier.

However, if you are going out with friends, most likely dinner would be the preferred option, even on weekends. Though nowadays brunch outings, especially on Sunday can be popular.

When are the mealtimes?
Breakfast – 8-11am
Brunch – 10am-2pm-ish
Lunch – 11:30 (to eat out of the office), 12 or 12:30 to eat inside the office. Usually finish by 1.
Happy Hour – Just after work finishes, anytime between 5-7
Dinner – between start between 7-8 end by 9 or 9:30 latest (regional differences may apply)

What do I wear?

If you are going out with your friends, unless the restaurant has a dress code (most do not), general American casual clothing will work.

If you are going out for lunch, obviously whatever you are wearing to work is fine. For happy hour, if you leave directly from the office to the bar or restaurant, then you will be wearing your work clothes. For dinner, you could go home and change to something more casual. Do ask your colleagues if the restaurant you are going to has a dress code. Usually restaurants in the US with a dress code are really expensive. I suggest business casual for the first dinner outing. Observe what your colleagues are wearing and for future dinner outings try to mimic that if it suits the occasion.

An exception to this is if the after working hours outing is for meeting new business clients or colleagues, then it would be appropriate to probably dress more formal. This depends on your industry and it’s dress codes. It would be appropriate to ask your colleagues what the expectation is as well.


Wait for your Hostess to Seat You

If there is a sign requesting for you to wait to be seated, typically there will be a small desk or small, tall table with a host standing behind it, asking you for your name. He or she will write your name and ask you to wait. Depending on how many people are waiting in line before you, you may be given a beeper, or they may take your mobile number. When your name is called or your beeper rings or lightens up, find the host who will guide you to your table. A different person will be your waiter in most cases.

Hostess Sign in a Restaurant- Please Seat Yourself

Hostess Sign in a Restaurant- Please Seat Yourself

Seat Yourself

If it says to seat yourself, leisurely stroll around and find a table. If it is crowded, do not run and take a table that another person is sitting at (as sometimes happens in Kerala). Wait for another table to open up, so you and your party can sit alone. If by mistake you sit at a table where another patron is sitting, simply apologize and move to another table. It’s important to make eye contact with those around you and be aware of who is around you. If you find some difficulty in finding a table during peak hours, please find a restaurant employee to help you.  


Fast Food 

In most fast food restaurants, you will approach the counter to place your order. Be ware that they will speak very fast, as orders must be given, placed and delivered within short periods of time, like three to five minutes. Be ready with your payment of credit card, debit card or cash. In most fast food restaurants, you will seat yourself. The same rules apply for seating yourself in fast food restaurants as noted above. 


Restaurants with “Bar Sections”

Some restaurants, like a popular Italian chain, shown in this video, will have a bar section. When entering the restaurant, the host will take your name and you will wait to be seated (that is not shown in the video). If the establishment is very busy, and all the tables are full, but the bar section is empty, the host or hostess may ask you if you’d like to sit or wait in the bar until your table is empty. Entering the bar section with children is acceptable in most states, and drinking alcohol is not a requirement. The bar areas in most of these establishments are somewhat open to the rest of the restaurant. The bar section can serve you food just like you would get in the main seating area, but the tables may look different. You may sit at a “bar” with stools, or higher, round tables, or there will be less seating than in the main area of the restaurant. Note, smoking is not always allowed in all bar sections. Please ask the staff before lighting up. 


What should I order?

Well, that’s a good question. If they are paying, do ask them what they usually order. Look at the price of that option on the menu. I always suggest to order something of a lower price than what your client or colleagues likes or orders. Or, if you don’t know that information, study the menu and look for the medium priced food option. Do not go for the most expensive option. If you go for the least expensive, that’s not bad, but it’s not necessary also. Also keep in mind if you are paying that if you order the most expensive thing on the menu, it may give your colleagues the feeling they can also order the most expensive thing. But if you are paying and you choose the least expensive thing on the menu that will make you look cheap, and that’s not good. It’s ideal to default to the items of medium price range. 


Scenes of Eating in American Restaurants

Check out our playlist to see videos of going out to eat in various restaurants in the USA. 


Ordering Your Food in American Restaurants

The video found here is more of an American English tutorial that will guide you on some common expressions, questions and pleasantries you can use in American restaurants. Also, notice some common phrases or greetings used by wait staff in common eateries. 


What should I expect to eat?

Restaurant menus can be extensive and confusing for newcomers to the US. The best suggestion I have is if you know the restaurant in advance, look up the menu online to understand the menu options.

If you are worried about being the only one not knowing the menu, that may not always be true. Menus are so extensive and long in some establishments that there is no way that a typical person knows all the menu options. Typically, some people have one or two favorite options at any restaurant and order that whenever they visit to make it easier.

Because of this, you can surely feel free to make small talk about the menu with your colleagues. You can use any of these questions:

      • “What do you like to eat here?”
      • “What do you normally order here?” / “What are your go-to menu options?” 
      • “What is this restaurant known for?” (India: “What are the famous dishes here?”)

Use these questions as a basis for small talk. They may not suggest any dish you like or are interested in. That’s ok. Use this as an opportunity to ask questions about the menu and learn about the food in that restaurant. American menus can be long and confusing, even for locals.


What if I am a vegetarian (or have dietary restrictions)?

Ask your colleague or the waitress what vegetarian (or other required) options are available. In the US many soups and other dishes may have meat-based broth. Ask about the broth if you are ordering soup. Many restaurants will adjust a menu item to remove meat or replace meat with a veggie burger or vegetables. Ask your server about it.

Drinking at work in the U.S.A.

What if I don’t drink alcohol?

If dining with colleagues, you’d most likely only need to worry about this for happy hour and dinner outings. However, with friends, depending on the day and/or time of day, this may not apply.

If they drink during the day, I’d respond with, “Sorry, I prefer not to drink during the workday.”

If it’s happy hour or dinner, use religion as an excuse if you are a teetollar, “Sorry, it’s against my religion.” No one will touch that. But, if you just say, “No not today” it is possible they may tease you to drink. This is not to be mean, but it’s something like what would happen in India when you meet a new group of friends, to be “friendly” or “a part of the group” they may encourage you to do something to be a part of the group. It’s no different, only different people!

Note, the image in this post is of what is considered a ‘girlie drink.’ Brightly colored drinks are for women while dark colored are for men or considered ‘manly.’ Find out what your colleagues like to drink and see if you want to try that out.


What is the drinking etiquette?

Normally, at training programs, I ask the Indians who have gone to the US to describe the drinking behavior of their colleagues. Normally, they say something like this, “They are not drinking to get high. They drink a little, talk to others, eat snacks, then drink some more.” This is called social drinking. In fact, we have a phrase for that, we call that “nursing the drink.” Drinking to get drunk with colleagues is not common for colleagues-only groups. I would also not suggest it as we do things we don’t remember when we get drunk, and this can cause problems. Drinking in this manner is done during happy hour and during dinner outings.

American vs. Indian English

Note that the word “hotel” is used in many parts of south India to refer to a restaurant. A hotel in the US is an establishment for sleeping, rarely for eating. Avoid asking your American counterpart to “join you in a hotel” for lunch. This doesn’t have a good meaning in the US culture. Instead ask, “Shall we go out for lunch today?” And, if someone asks where did you eat, don’t say, “We went to the hotel.” Instead, say, “We ate at the restaurant.” Or mention the name of the restaurant, “We went to XXX restaurant today.” 


Open the Door

If you are out with your colleagues or American friends, take the initiative to open the door for them. If anyone is following through the door behind you at a restaurant or in the office, or anywhere, hold the door open for them. This is one behavior that in the US if you do it (with eye contact and a smile), people will be happy, but if it’s not done, it will be problematic. 


Which Spoon or Fork Should I Use?

Typically, unless your colleagues want to go to a very expensive restaurant, you probably won’t need to worry about the answer to this question as most restaurants only provide one fork, spoon, and knife used for all courses.
If you’d like to know more about business dining etiquette, this video from Niagara University will help out. It’s tailored toward dining during a job interview, but most of the tips can apply to most situations.


Who Pays- What’s the Etiquette?

We wrote about this in detail – Who Pays for Lunch When Going out to Eat (for work)?

Keep in mind that most restaurants do list suggest tips on the receipt (bill or ticket). Typically, the tip should be 15-25% of the bill before taxes depending on the location.
This video clip from the tv show Friends shows us how paying for a meal is a tricky thing even among friends.


What do I do if I find myself in such a situation as in the video?

It may happen. It happens to a lot of people. It’s ok. It’s ok to blame it on your newness to the US or learning American culture. An apology goes a long way – a verbal apology of “I’m sorry, as I am new to the US, I am just learning how things work here, it’s different than India.”

Your colleague will be relieved that you acknowledge it, and it may open discussion about US or local culture where you can learn something that will be very helpful in the long term. And, in the US, your colleagues shouldn’t tell you the wrong thing to tease you to be friendly with you. They should advise you on the correct etiquette tips to help you be comfortable and appropriate in and around your colleagues and counterparts.

Your Experience Eating in Restaurants in the US

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Does your company relocate employees to the U.S. or assign them to short-term engagements in the U.S.? If yes, we can help prepare your team for success on their business trips to the U.S. Contact us for more information.


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Photo of man sitting at table by Austin Distel on Unsplash
Original publishing date: 2/15, updated 5.2020, Jan 2022
Business photo created by peoplecreations –


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