How to nail the most awkward kind of interview: the lunch date

Be prepared to have your skills, qualifications and table manners scrutinized.

How to nail the most awkward kind of interview: the lunch date

Ah, the lunch interview—an audition that combines the stress of a job interview with the awkwardness of a first date. To ace it, you’ll need to make a professional impression in a casual environment. That’s no easy feat.

“Hiring managers typically do lunch interviews because they want to see your personality come out and see how you behave in a casual setting,” says Amy Wolfgang, CEO at Austin, Texas-based Wolfgang Career Coaching.

But as the interviewee, you need to be strategic in your approach. “There’s a temptation to let down your guard and let it become a social event, but it’s still a job interview,” says Carole Martin, job interview coach and author of Boost Your Interview IQ.

The good news: “If a hiring manager is going to expense a meal for you, the person is seriously interested in hiring you,” says Martin.

Follow these ground rules to crush it at your next lunch interview:

Be courteous to everyone

From the moment you walk into the restaurant, your social skills are under the microscope. “The interviewer is watching how you interact with the host or hostess, the wait staff, even the person who comes to clear your plate,” says Wolfgang.

Schmoozing with the staff is similar to cozying up to the office receptionist in that it can affect the hiring manager’s perception of you. Translation: You need to be polite to and appreciative of everyone.

This is particularly crucial if you’re interviewing for a client- or customer-facing position. “If you’re going to represent the company, hiring managers want to see how well you engage with people,” says Martin.

Make smart small talk

Lunch interviews by nature are more casual than traditional office interviews, so you’ll need to up your chitchat game. But remember: “This is a business meeting, not a social event,” says Martin. Read: Don’t bring up politics or religion—and save the Kardashians for your friends.

“Weather and holiday plans are safe topics,” says Mikaela Kiner, CEO at Uniquely HR, a career coaching and HR consulting firm; so is observational small talk (e.g., “The vibe here is fun, don’t you think?”). And, regardless of how the food tastes, you should avoid making negative comments about the meal—this could be the hiring manager’s favorite restaurant.

Order strategically

While we’re on the topic of etiquette, you need to be mindful of what you order. Avoid messy foods (anything that you need to eat with your hands), soups (no slurping!) and salads (do you really want lettuce stuck in your teeth?). Also, “absolutely no alcohol,” says Martin. “Alcohol relaxes you and loosens your tongue, and loose lips sink ships.”

Moreover, pay attention to price. “You don’t need to compare dollar-for-dollar to what the hiring manager gets, but order within reason,” advises Kiner. In other words, don’t order the most expensive food on the menu. Also, mind your manners and let the interviewer order first.

Bring your application materials

Just like you would do for an office interview, take copies of your resume and any work samples with you. “You may not get the opportunity to present them, but you can at least leave them with the hiring manager,” says Wolfgang. Also, bring a pen and paper to potentially take notes in between courses.

Come prepared—and say thank you

Although you’re interviewing in a more relaxed setting, you don’t want to become overly focused on dining etiquette and lose sight of other important prep work. You should still be ready to respond to the some of the most common interview questions.

Of course, you’ll want to send the hiring manager a meaningful thank-you email—followed by a handwritten letter by mail. Be sure to refer to something funny you discussed or comment on the meal (e.g. “The burger was absolutely delicious.”). You can be a little more informal with your thank-you note, but “follow-up is essential no matter what type of interview you have,” says Wolfgang.