Time Out’s guide to corporate dining

After ten years at the helm of Time Out in Australia, CEO Michael Rodrigues has learned a thing or two about hosting corporate lunches. Here’s his personal 8-point guide to business development, over the table
Merivale have the greatest diversity of offering across the city, complemented by consistent product and sensible pricing for business dining. My Merivale recommendations include Felix, Bistrode CBD, Ucello and Mr Wong (pictured).

1. Pick your window

The more familiar you are with your guests, the more likely you are to get the overall entertainment piece right. People like different things – what impresses some might be seen as unduly extravagant or over the top by others.

Outside of location and cuisine, the biggest thing you need to get a handle on is the amount of time your guests have to spend with you. Get this wrong and you might find yourself eating mains for two, without ever having discussed the business you were hoping to.

2. Book smart

Make it convenient
What matters most is that your guests turn up and can stay with you for the time you need them to. Your best option will be to pick somewhere within walking distance of your guest’s office. This avoids the uncertainty associated with cabs and traffic and increases the likelihood that they will be there on time.

Avoid 1pm
I’ll always push for an early start time – as early as 12pm, but I will settle for 12.30pm. If you get the choice of restaurant right, your guests will arrive promptly and you can get your order into the kitchen prior to the inevitable 1pm lunchtime rush.

3. Be the boss

It’s your lunch. You’re paying. You’re in charge. Don’t leave it to chance. Arrive early, so you can be shown to your table, and familiarise yourself with the menu (if you aren’t already). Decide in advance where you want to sit and where your guests should sit. As the host, you’ll need access to the waitstaff, so position yourself to catch their eyes at all times. Have you ever noticed how in mobster movies, the boss always sits towards the back of the room, facing the entrance to avoid nasty surprises? Be the mob boss. And if you’ve picked somewhere with a view, try to let your guests enjoy it. If you are dining with colleagues, sit apart so that you can conduct multiple conversations should you choose.

4. Eliminate choice

Once my co-founder Justin and I turned up at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne at around 9.30pm, mid-week. We took our seats. After enquiring about our evening, our waiter asked, “Gentlemen, how do we feel about 12 oysters to share, two steaks (one grain fed, the other grass fed, for a side by side comparison), chips and a bottle of red?” With hospitality this good, who needs choice?

You want your guests to have a good time but don’t confuse that with giving them too many options. If you’ve done your research you’ll be in the right restaurant for the occasion. Now’s the time to put your trust in the hospitality crew around you. They’ll take care of the food and libations while you take care of the conversation. Consider the staff your supporting cast, let them help you deliver your Oscar-winning performance. The more complicated the food order for the table, the more likely it is something will go wrong. Even if the restaurant recovers, dealing with the drama will erode the time you get to spend with your guests, who may be distracted by the incident.

For good food and good drinks, relinquish control and order Dead Ringer’s “feed me, booze me” option

5. On drinks

Sparkling or still?
Leaving aside for the moment the environmental issues, the bottled water bill can bite you on the backside if you aren’t careful. Again if you have made it there ahead of your guests, you can respond with either “tap”, or a question about whether the water is local or imported. Be on the look-out for restaurants who are filtering and aerating on site. Many, like Banksii in Barangaroo, offer a set price bottomless glass which seems a fair compromise. Eleven Bridge, Momofuku Seiobo and many other fine dining venues will even offer sparkling for free.

To drink or not to drink?
Study the drinks list by all means, but don’t order an alcoholic beverage until your guests arrive. It’s increasingly common to steer clear of booze at lunchtime, so delaying your order might save you an unnecessary faux pas. More often than not, there’s a good reason to sway the table in favour of a bevvie or two. A little bit of alcohol relaxes us and can help get the conversation flowing. I’ll often ask the table, “are we drinking?” in a slightly rhetorical fashion. One or two nods or an “I’ll have something” gives you the all clear to proceed.

Cocktails
Spritzes have come into their own in recent times and have the same alcohol content as a glass of wine. Similarly whisky highballs and Cuba Libres look like cocktails but are punching one drink less each time.

Wine
Don’t make the mistake of delving for the wine list at the outset. Rookie error. You haven’t worked out what the table is eating, and for most people wine choice is linked to food. A discussion about wine at this point will inevitably descend into the menu and derail all business conversation. Instead, signal your intention by saying “I might start with a beer/aperitif/cocktail and move on to wine with the meal.” This approach gets a drink into your guests’ hands more quickly than getting lost in the thickets of the wine list. Those who want to move on to wine later, can. Others might continue with their first choice or tail off completely. This reduces the risk that of being locked into a (repeating) bottle of wine you aren’t really happy with. If wine is to be ordered by the bottle, canvas the table as to colour and/or varietal, then give the sommelier guidance and a price range (eg $80-$90).

The bottom line
Under no circumstances should you get drunk while hosting a corporate lunch. If alcohol is involved, stay at least one drink behind your slowest drinking guest. If you find them wanting to push the pace, find lower alcohol options or have a quiet word to your waiter to fill their glass, not yours.

6. A matter of courses

Bread
Do it. It gets something on the table quickly, and relieves pressure (and hanger) if there’s a delay on your food or any other problem. Consider it your low cost insurance policy. Once their will is tested, even the most primal of paleo dieters will fold.

The order
As most business lunches need to be concluded within 90 minutes, I find a nice middle ground (which also reins in the expense claim) to be as follows: bread to start; sides, salads for the table; main dish each; dessert optional. Have an eye to raw options (which typically require less attention in the kitchen and thus will be out quicker) and use the small plates to get through the small talk. Once mains hit the table, get your guests eating and start pitching!

Sharing
It’s all the rage but in the business context there are pros and cons to this. On the plus side it’s communal and, provided you don’t drop a tomato in someone’s lap, a good way of demonstrating your desire to serve your guests beyond the table. It can also be a talking point, or a way of engaging with the quiet ones. The con is that passing around all those plates can result in chaos; it breaks the conversation; and can distract your guests at a critical time in your pitch. Make no mistake, you’re always pitching. It’s less of an issue for up to four diners, but for five to eight guests, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s back in play once you hit nine or more guests because at that type of lunch you are probably celebrating something and you aren’t going to be able to control the conversation in any case.

Dego?
No. Unless my guest “really wants to eat at ____”, or I know them well, I will tend to steer clear of five course set menus. The pros are the removal of choice, and the talkability around the food. But these are outweighed by cons which include the risk of the meal running over time. By their nature, set menus involve a degree of challenge or experimentation, which can sometimes be a distraction from your primary mission: the conversation. It’s slightly awkward when your guest sits there pushing around a full plate of sweetbreads with their fork, because they misunderstood what those were.

Set and forget
One of my stalwart corporate entertaining restaurants is Dead Ringer. The “feed me, booze me” option sees you relinquish control to seasoned professionals whose well considered menu, combined with sixth sense level hospitality means that after a few questions both food and booze arrive seamlessly at your table in the right quantity and with dietary and food preferences well navigated. You’ll see more of this in the next few years.

Nel: Winner of our People’s Choice Food Award 2015 & 2016

7. Getting good service

Be regular
If you want to be treated like a regular, become one! Concentrate your spend in a few restaurants.

Be kind
Talk to the people that are looking after you like humans. Outside of it being the right thing to do, it’ll aid you in your ultimate goal of winning business. Remember, they’re your supporting act. Ask their names, remember them. Explain what you are attending the restaurant to do: “We’re here entertaining prospective clients.” They’ll facilitate. Then, help them by helping the table make decisions.

Be generous
Tipping – if the company’s paying, you need to check the policy. I often tip out of my own pocket, because the cast has performed well and it puts me in good standing when next I need to perform. Think about it as an investment in a relationship.

8. Closing out

“Please. You’re my guest. Allow me”
I always find paying the bill in front of guests an unnecessary speed-bump at the end of a winning race. Particularly if the restaurant is busy or the waitstaff elusive. It leads to fidgeting in seats and looking at watches. I’m not a fan. There are a couple of ways to get around this. One is to take a trip to the bathroom with a stop by the waiter’s station along the way. It’s not a bad approach but you can end up getting in the way.

My preferred conclusion is to channel my inner Roger Sterling, rise to my feet at the appropriate moment and say something like “Well gentlemen and ladies, thank you for your time today. We’ve taken care of the bill”, and send them on their way. I can then retake my seat, discuss matters arising from the lunch with colleagues, make follow up notes and pay the bill at my leisure.

Over to you

Whether you’re looking to book in a long lunch, a quick corporate catch up or a business meeting with beverages, here’s Time Out’s guide to the best restaurants for business lunches in Sydney’s CBD. And if you’re looking to take it up a notch in Melbourne, here are our recommendations for Melbourne’s best private dining rooms.