Manners & Misdemeanors

The Unwritten Etiquette Rules On Having Lunch

It's the biggest small decision you can make.
IMAGE JEKATERINA NIKITINA / GETTY IMAGES
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Anything after 1:30 is basically an afternoon coffee,” says Town & Country’s editor-in-chief, Stellene Volandes, dryly. “Any later is positively Spanish,” agrees Adam Rathe, senior culture editor.

When—and how—should one lunch? It has become something of a debate in the T&C office of late. Like most office workers, there's much about our day that we can't control. The start time and duration of any given meeting is prescribed; at any moment, someone might ping you on email or Slack, redirecting your entire day's work. But not your lunch.

Despite Soylent's best attempts, there isn't (yet) a workaround for food, making lunch the one part of the day that hasn't been standardized and subsumed into the nine-to-five matrix. Everyone has their own habits. There are the early birds (yours truly, who can be found in the building café by 12:01 p.m., most days), the slowpokes (my deskmate Maggie Maloney, who “would ideally like to eat lunch around 2:00 or 2:30 p.m. every day,” but often grabs food even later), and the in-betweeners (Style and Interiors writer Olivia Martin, who dines between 12:30 and 1 p.m., “because I’m not a heathen.”)

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For the few who haven't surrendered to the drudgery of the desk salad, lunchtime—like a certain Office Space character's red stapler, or Liz Lemon's decoy candy drawer—fosters a sense of control, even as the TPS reports pile up.

And then, some days, that precious hour is wrested away by that, the business lunch. Outliers who dine at 11:30 or 2:00 are dragged back into the mainstream by their cubicle-dwelling comrades, with no consideration of a grumbling stomach or lack of appetite.

At every lunch, there will be at least one unhappy guest. Exactly how unhappy is, again, dependent on the individual. When asked to rate how upset they’d be on a 1-10 scale, T&C staffers offered numbers ranging from zero to 10—notably, lunching later was a cause for much more concern than dining early. No one likes to get hangry.

If it’s impossible to please everyone, is there still a best practice? A lunchtime guideline? Like most things in this world, there is no one correct answer (well there is—it’s noon—but I digress), but there are people who have thought about lunch more than the rest of us. So I asked them.

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IF IT WAS JUST ABOUT FOOD

Scientifically speaking, if you’re a late luncher, you’d better be munching on a mid-morning snack, says Brigitte Zeitlin, registered dietitian and owner of BZ Nutrition. “The actual time of day you are eating is not harmful or beneficial to your health,” she says. “But the schedule you are eating on can be.” Zetilin recommends eating every three to four hours after breakfast, “to keep your energy and focus up throughout the day.” (Few T&C staffers, it seems, currently hew to this schedule. We may need an office-wide nutrition audit.)

LUNCHING IN POLITE SOCIETY

But then, we don’t live in a purely scientific world. Lunch is a socially agreed-upon practice, in addition to a biologically necessary chance to refuel. Etiquette also comes into play, as Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette, well knows. “I recommend offering a time range for the person to choose from,” Meier says. “I typically offer and ask if they can meet any time starting from 12:30-1:30 p.m. I choose this time range because you want to take into consideration travel time, and anything earlier (a noon start time for instance) may cause your guest to have to leave the office during morning work hours. The same goes for afternoon work hours.” Sadly, you have to let your guest choose the time if you’re trying to be polite—grumbling stomach be damned.

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THE RULES OF THE POWER LUNCH

Meier’s range lines up well with the dining patterns at two of Manhattan’s designated power-lunching spots, L’Avenue at Saks and the Terrace at the Times Square Edition. “One p.m. is popular on weekends and about 12:30 p.m. during weekdays,” says Amy Racine, wine director at the Times Square Edition. Across town, “Our lunch rush typically starts at 12:30 p.m.,” says Mathylde Caffa, brand ambassador for L’Avenue.

Both also agree that the average business lunch lasts around an hour—something T&C’s Maloney might find difficult. “I am a notoriously slow eater, as my desk mate Chloe can attest,” she says. (I can, indeed, attest.) “I’ve tried to pick up the pace in certain situations just so I’m not rude, but most of the time I really just can’t help it.”

The duration is also dependent on if you’re dining for business or pleasure—or some ungodly mixture of the two. Caffa says waiters can spot a working lunch a mile away, and time is of the essence. “They have less time to speak with our wait staff, therefore it is important that the waiter understands that he or she needs to be efficient, and not spend too much time at the table," Caffa explains.

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THE UNWRITTEN MENU

How they order changes, too. "Clients lunching for business usually order items on the menu that can be made very quickly," Caffa says. And for a drink? “Very rarely do business lunch guests order a sophisticated cocktail that they don't know. They go for options they have already tried before.” Best not to sip an elaborate, umbrella-topped concoction at a table full of gin-and-tonics.

Racine’s noticed that business-minded diners might try to show off, too. “They tend to be straightforward with ordering and maybe try to impress the guest by ordering a more lavish starter, like the seafood tower for example," she says

Like many Mad Men-era business tropes, the golden age of the power lunch—think multiple martinis, schmoozing with the old boys' club—may be over. Sometimes, a seafood tower is the only way to close the deal.

If it must be done, lunchtime can be sacrificed—but office life will demand a replacement. Get a standing desk. Become the guy who's always recommending podcasts. Start meditating, or pretending to meditate, so everyone will leave you alone. Bring in plants, and name them (mine's Pinky).

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Anything, anything at all, that stops you from going absolutely, completely insane.

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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