Gentleman Jack Presents: How to Host a Formal Dinner
You may be fooling yourself if you’re not worried about your ability to be at ease with fine dining at a five-star restaurant, or taking charge of hosting a business or social dinner. If you wish to climb either the social or corporate ladder, you must have a veneer that is smooth and polished. While it may be a jungle out there, animal house manners won’t cut it for formal events.
Learn the Terrain
Begin by frequenting several upscale restaurants. These establishments should reflect the image you wish to project about yourself. Learn their geography, layout, menu, where the best tables are, and the names of the servers. Develop a rapport with the wait staff and the maitre d’, and have them recognize you. It will be your responsibility to take charge of every detail of the forthcoming event, from picking up the phone and extending the invitation yourself to paying the bill and the valet parking.
Extend the invitation to your guests at least one week before the meeting. Tell them the reason for the meeting, and where and when it will be. If you make your invitation by phone, send a confirmation card to arrive two days before the scheduled date. This acts as a reminder in the event of an oversight.
Prep the Event in Advance
Make reservations in your name as far in advance as possible. When booking the table, specify where you would like to sit. Learn the table numbers of the best locations, and request a specific table at the time you make your reservation. Prearrange the menu if time is an issue or if more than six people will be attending. If you will be entertaining at a restaurant with which you are unfamiliar, either ask to have a menu faxed or sent to you, or download it from the Internet. Learn the menu for possible suggestions. You never want to look unprepared.
On the night of the event, arrive early to allow yourself time to check the arrangements and the menu. Greet your guests in the lobby, or go to the table and ask the maitre d’ to escort them to your table. Don’t order a drink, munch on the breadsticks or open your napkin once you’ve sat down. Your guests should arrive to see you sitting at an undisturbed table.
Orchestrate the Meal
As the host, you decide the seating arrangements. Point out a chair for each guest and ask him to sit there. The most important guest gets the most desirable seat at the table. In general, seat your most important guest looking into the restaurant, but if your restaurant is noted for its view, seat him looking out. If your guests are late, state that you just sat down yourself upon their arrival.
Ensure that you have asked for a large table if you think you may have to spread out papers. When there are two of you at a meal, sit at a right angle to your guest (unless you are at a booth). Sitting across from one another at a square table is considered an adversarial position.
As the host, it is your responsibility to give the silent signal that the meal may begin by placing your napkin on your lap. Unfold your luncheon napkin all the way when you sit down. Once everyone is seated, offer your guests something to drink. “What are you having to drink?” is classier than “Do you want a drink?” If your guests order a beverage, you should too, even if you don’t want one. It doesn’t have to be alcoholic.
First Pleasure, Then Business
Don’t jump into your business until after all the orders have been taken and the appetizers have been served. If you are hosting a luncheon, use the first 10 minutes for “small talk.” For a dinner, allow 30 minutes. This gives everyone a chance to relax and establish rapport. Invite colleagues of your guests only if they are essential to the meeting. The exception is if a guest is from out of town; in this case, it is courteous to allow him or her to bring a spouse. Arrange to bring a partner of the same gender to occupy the spouse while the two of you are conducting business.
Once seated, turn off your cell phone. It is rude to your guests and other diners for you to talk on the telephone while sitting at a dining table. If you need to leave the table in the middle of the meal, put your napkin on the seat of your chair, not on the table. You want to leave the table looking as neat as possible; this is also a signal to the server that you will be returning, and not to take your plate away.
Pay the Bill with Grace
When hosting a lunch or dinner, the worldly businessman doesn’t fuss with the check. There are sophisticated ways to handle paying the bill. You may give your credit card ahead of time, and request that the server add 18% to the meal. The server will then run your credit card ahead of time, and return it and the receipt for you to sign at the end of the meal.
You may also request that the receipt not be brought to your table. Arrange either to pick it up on your way out or have it sent to your office. You may also request that the bill be held at the maitre d”s station. Excuse yourself as the meal is coming to a close, and go there to review and sign the slip, and pick up your receipt.