The Tricks to Navigating a Lunch InterviewDon't Make a Meal Of It

An elaborate setting at an expensive restaurant where lunch interviews are likely to occur

Lunch or dinner interviews are a good thing. Apart from the free meal, they often reflect that the company is really interested in you, and present a wonderful chance for the you and the interviewers to get to know each other better outside the stuffy confines of an office setting. This is especially important as both organizations and candidates are increasingly focused not just job qualifications but on the candidate also gelling with the culture of a firm.

These interviews can be tricky to navigate, especially if it’s your first time, so we decided to put together a short guide.

1. Prepare the conversation

Do some research on your interviewers beforehand. Google them, check out their bios, check out who they follow on LinkedIn / Twitter if easy to find. Think of one or two ice-breaker conversation topics you can easily have. It goes without saying that you should avoid political or other sensitive topics. Have a short spiel handy about yourself, but also expect questions like “What are your hobbies”, “What do you like to do outside of work”.

Think of one or two things that might be useful to build a conversation on and be memorable. If you are going to bring up your love of reading, or television, or travel — expect the follow up and think of books / shows / places you might want to discuss that spark a conversation and make you relatable. We’ve heard of people bring up “Harry Potter” as their favorite book more than once and it’s gone both ways — the “Oh my god I love it too” way, and the “Isn’t that a kids series” way. Definitely avoid bringing up Twilight.

A lunch or dinner interview is often about getting to know you better as a person, and seeing how relatable you are. By definition, a great meal interview is one where you have a wonderful casual conversation and get to know each other better. Almost like a date. So let that reflect in your preparation. Your focus isn’t to have the right answers but to look for common ground where they can get to know you better and you can get to know them better.

In that vein, think about the types of questions you might want to bring up. Your questions here may be a little more open ended than in a formal interview setting. Ask about their career trajectories, and the choices they made. This is a better venue to ask about work-life balance, if pertinent. As they open up about themselves, you will find you learn a lot more about the company and its culture.

Compared to a formal interview, where you are trying to get your key selling points across, in a lunch or dinner interview, you want to have rich conversations. So pay extra attention to them when they speak and try and make sure that the speaking time is somewhat balanced.

2. Dress to impress, but also dress the part

It depends on your interviewers and the venue. If your interviewers typically wear suits to work, you should wear a suit. You should also wear a suit if the meal is at a fancy restaurant where people would typically wear a jacket.

If the company’s dress code is casual, but the venue itself is a formal one, then it typically doesn’t hurt to wear a blazer sans tie. For women, a tailored dress or a blazer works. Keep it business casual. If it’s a startup or a tech company which tend to have relaxed dress codes and if they have chosen a more casual place — go with a nice pair of jeans and a sweater or a sports jacket (applies to both men and women).

If in doubt, discreetly ask someone junior who you may have met during the interview process, or ask the person coordinating the event like the hiring managers assistant for the dress code for the event if there is one.

3. Bring the (small) bag, leave the portfolio

Don’t overdo it. Have a pen handy and maybe a pocket sized notepad that you can pull out discreetly if you need to note something down. Ideally you shouldn’t be taking notes during the interview at all and shouldn’t have your notebook out. However, if they say something interesting, it doesn’t hurt to say “please excuse while I write that down to look up later” and do so quickly. We don’t think you need to have your resume, but if you want to fold your resume (single fold longitudinally) and have it in your suit jacket, or carry the resume with you in your briefcase / bag — that’s fine.

4. The little details that make the impression

We find it helpful to review the menu beforehand on yelp or menupages (but don’t let them know that you did). That way you glance at the menu and make a quick decision. Shows that you are decisive and also allows you to waste less time looking at the menu and more time engaged in conversation. Moreover, it allows you to choose items on the menu that are likely to be less messy (avoid the cheesesteak with whiz, be very careful with big burgers) and items that are less likely to raise eyebrows (nope, not the oyster plate).

While you want to be yourself, you want to avoid being memorable for your eating habits or dinner choices — so pick foods you are comfortable eating and are likely to mostly finish, and avoid being the only person at the table who gets dessert.

If everyone is getting a drink, join them in a glass. If you are a teetotaler, don’t feel pressured to drink to make an impression. Just get something you are comfortable with. Either way, make sure you aren’t the only one drinking, and nurse that drink through the meal so you stay alert. This is not the event to indulge.

It also helps to do research on a few other simple things. If you are driving there, make sure you know where you will park and budget time for parking. If you are likely to use the coat check or the valet parking, keep some change in your pockets handy for tips. It’s so awkward asking for change when you are with company you are trying to impress. Try and orchestrate the entire meal in your mind so you can appear smooth and in control throughout.

Remember to smile, be graceful and gracious. Always be impeccably polite to the wait staff. And pay attention to them, how they treat each other, and the staff. You are likely to learn a lot more about them than you would in a regular interview, and that’s a good thing.

Most of all, enjoy yourself. Someone’s buying you a meal.

Need help mastering the interview process?

Did you find this helpful? Subscribe to our newsletter

Tapwage co-founder; Previously on Wall Street, and in consulting. Crazy about technology. Has too many open browser tabs.