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