What can overseas visitors expect from a UK business lunch or dinner? Some business dinners can be very formal, but be prepared for a great deal of flexibility and informality during your time in the UK too.
Dining out with business associates and colleagues is very common in the UK, but occasions and settings can vary greatly, as can the sense of formality. With this in mind it’s vital you establish beforehand what you can expect, information which you should be able to glean from the invitation, venue and often the time of day you will be dining. While the UK is home to some of the world’s finest dining, it has a lively pub culture, with many more informal business meals and meetings taking place in ‘gastropubs’. Over the last few decades, the practice of inviting business colleagues into your home has diminished drastically and the vast majority of business meals take place in restaurants, pubs or cafes.
Differentiating between the different meal times in the UK can also be very confusing, even to the British (often thanks to regional dialects), but generally they are as follows:
▪ Breakfast – the first meal of the day, usually served up until around 11.30am.
▪ Brunch – a mid-morning meal, often featuring a combination of breakfast and lunch menu items and usually heavily featuring eggs.
▪ Lunch – a midday meal which can be served anywhere from 11.30am to around 2.30pm.
▪ Tea – a late afternoon meal or snack, served somewhere between 3pm and 6pm.
▪ Dinner – the main evening meal, most commonly served between 6pm and 8pm, although this can vary.
▪ Supper – a light evening meal, served up until 11pm.
Whichever meal you are taking, it is standard to make a booking in advance, as sittings in restaurants can be very limited for each meal.
Especially where the intention is clear beforehand, the British are willing to discuss business matters over a meal, but the golden rule is to follow the lead of your host since business entertaining practice can differ from person to person.
Dining etiquette for seating at a formal meal in the UK usually sees the host at the head of the table, with the guests of greatest importance seated first to the left and then the right of the head of the table and if there is a hosting couple, they will usually sit each at one end of the table.
Even in more informal settings, it’s wise to wait for your host to let you know where to sit unless you are certain that it is not of any importance.
Good table manners are valued very highly in the UK, where the saying “manners maketh man” is almost as relevant today as it was when first used in the early Tudor period.
Central to this when it comes to dining is the correct use of a knife and fork, which are always used unless you find yourself in a very informal dining setting, such as finger buffet or a BBQ. The British do not switch their cutlery when eating. Instead the fork is held in the left hand at all times, with the knife in the right to cut food and to help carry food to the fork. The fork is held with its tines (sharp points) facing downwards, with the knife moving food towards it in order to pick it up. It should never turned over and to scoop food up from the plate.
Cutlery should be used working from the outside in, with separate utensils for each course and reserving the spoon that is placed at the top of your setting, above the plate, for dessert. When using a soup spoon it should be spooned away from you to gather liquid, before being sipped from the spoon and you should not put the whole spoon in your mouth. When you have finished using a spoon it should always be placed on a side plate or saucer, never left in the bowl or cup.
Other points of dining etiquette in the UK include waiting for your host to start eating before you begin, always placing your napkin on your lap (larger napkins should remain folded, while smaller napkins can be opened out fully) and using your hands rather than a knife to break a bread roll placed on your side plate.
It is considered bad manners to eat with your mouth open, speak with your mouth full, or to tuck your napkin into your shirt.
Toasting and drinking
The most common toast in the UK is “cheers”, or a toast to your health, although at very formal meals you may hear a toast to the Queen.
The bill will usually be paid by whoever has issued the invitation, although rank may also come into play. In the UK restaurant bills usually include a service range of 10 to 15 percent.