Interviews are already stress-filled events and the worries about how to handle yourself around dinner and having a drink can amp this up to nerve shattering levels.   It doesn’t have to be that way.  There are a few basic things to remember to change an interview dining experience from a thrill ride to a walk in the park.

You aren’t there to eat

When you get invited to dinner during an interview process, you might be starving after a long day of travel and interviewing and assume it is time to fuel up.  It isn’t.  The dynamics of the conversation will mean you are talking more than eating and it is hard to consume a meal.  I have interviewed many people over dinner and I usually take mercy and talk for a while to give them some time to eat.  The key thing to remember is that you aren’t there to eat, you are there to talk.  No matter how much of your meal is left, don’t get a doggie bag to bring home, it’s not a power move in a business setting.  Eat what you can and hit a burger joint on your way home if you need to.  

The Interview isn’t Over

It is very easy to relax and enjoy a nice meal with your potential new boss or a senior person in the firm, but you need to remember that this is part of the interview process.  It isn’t over yet.  This is especially true if there will be an element of entertaining on behalf of the company as they will want to know if you can handle yourself over a meal, where a lot of deals get done.  It isn’t time to talk about your college hi-jinks or that one time you danced on the boss’s desk at the office party.  Keep it to business and light personal topics, just like an interview. While things generally get a bit more personal and casual over dinner, the rules of acceptable questions remain the same as during office hours.

Treat the Wait Staff Right

I think it is always the right thing to treat your wait staff right, because they can make your dining experience great or middling.  In an interview situation, it is even more important because you are being assessed on how you treat the waiter.  Polite, pleasant are the watchwords and don’t ask too many questions about the menu, remember you aren’t there to eat.  I have seen plenty of six figure job offers vaporize over dinner because the candidate was a jerk to the waiter. 

Order Something Easy to Eat

When considering what to eat, head to something easy to eat.  That means you shouldn’t get spaghetti with an excess of red sauce.  For me, that means it is going to end up on my tie.  Head to drier items, perhaps a salad, roast chicken or a steak, items that can be cut to size and managed.  Multitasking by eating, trying to be witty and give good answers and managing something dripping with sauce can push things over the edge. 

Follow Your Host

Dinner during an interview is a dance so let your host guide the dance.  If they have a cocktail and you want one, feel free to indulge.  If they ask if you want wine, ask them to decide because you are flexible.  As always, if you prefer not to, that is acceptable as well.  The same goes for the meal, make sure you have the same number of courses as your host, so they are not eating their salad alone.  This can be a little dicey as you will be ordering first, so I usually pick a main and a starter and then politely ask them what looks good before I finalize my order.  If theirs includes a starter, I keep mine and if it doesn’t, I only order the main entrée. 

Do Not Drink to Excess

The simple case is a lunch interview and my rule is to never drink at lunch.  If the meal is dinner, you aren’t at this meal to drink either and a cardinal sin is to drink to excess.  It is easy to let it happen after a stress filled day.  One goes down easy, then a second and before you know you have over consumed.  That does not make the impression you want, and it leads to a less excellent version of you in the form of poor answers to critical questions.  Keep your consumption to two adult beverages with a max of three over a long dinner.  As always, take a ride sharing service or a taxi if you are drinking as that is viewed as a judgment item by a hirer.

It is a Chance to Assess Your Hirer Too

Like all interviews, dinner is a chance to check out your new company in a less formal way.  Lots of questions that might not be perfect in the office are okay here.  Cultural questions are fair game and how the informal organization works are good things to ask about.  You can also learn from where you are brought to dinner – was it the Olive Garden or was it a top steak house with a prodigious wine list?  That will give some indication of the spending patterns when entertaining clients, which might be important to you.  How your host behaves and how much they drink will give you insight to the drinking culture at the firm. 

Sometimes Spouses are Invited

In more senior roles, your significant other might be invited to dinner, usually with the significant other of the interviewer.  It is a great way to help along the recruiting process by bringing your partner into the conversation for a major decision, so they have met some people.  Once again, they are assessing your partner as they are part of the equation.  This is especially true if partners are sometimes involved in events or client entertaining.  You might need to do some coaching about the things in this chapter before the dinner to make sure everyone knows the rules of the game.

Your Host is Going to Pay

Realize that your host is going to pay, and you don’t have to fake like you are paying like we do in other situations when we know someone else is paying.  But that also means that you can’t order the most expensive thing on the menu.  Don’t worry more broadly about the prices, after all, your host picked the restaurant.  I tend to head to a middle priced and neat eating item and only order a starter or a salad if host does as well. 

I know that’s a lot to think about when you are trying to make a great impression at the same time, but master this and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a master diner.