Oct 15, 2021

Perhaps the Most Important Question of Our Lifetime: Who Pays for Lunch?

How and when to make someone else come up with the Benjamins

By Ed Goldman
When somebody extends a lunch invitation to you, do you automatically assume that same somebody’s going to pick up the tab?

This question was raised not long ago by my friend Elaine Corn, the award-winning food writer, teacher and author (for which she’s won both James Beard and Julia Child cookbook awards, I’ll have you know). She was asking me to lunch and raised the treating question herself within the same email—going on to suggest this could be worthy column fodder. (I actually tend to call ideas like this “column fodder” and “column mutter” since both, along with necessity, can be the parents of invention.)

Edgy Cartoon

Moth-Taken Identity

The issue interests me because in the regular course of my work I have a number of meals and cocktails with interviewees—when pandemics don’t cause working lunches to consist of two people watching each other eat tuna wraps over Zoom. Cocktail interviews often turn out to be costlier than lunches since people rarely order two lunches but have been known to request an additional drink. Ergo, I try to steer the arrangements to meal- rather than booze-sharing.

So, if you’re in the habit of lunching out for business or pleasure, what are the rules when the check comes? Here’s a simple but, one hopes, comprehensive guide:

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1.SEATING LOCATION. If your lunchmate gets to the restaurant ahead of you in order to get the seat with the preferred view (i.e., anything but the blank wall), my feeling is that he or she should feel honor-bound to pay for the meal. If, on the other hand, you get there ahead of time and pull the same stunt—but then, when your lunchmate arrives, you gallantly (and insincerely) offer him or her the better seat—your guest should still pay. You appeared willing to sacrifice your own comfort, after all. I think they give humanitarian awards for behavior of this sort in certain Baltic countries. Yes, I’m pretty sure about this.

2.CHOICE OF VENUE. If your lunchmate has suggested a restaurant that specializes in ethnic foods you’re not sure you’ll be able to either eat or pronounce the names of, keep your wallet in your pocket or purse when the bill arrives. Why should you have to fork over money when you have no idea what your fork just delivered to your maw? (For younger readers: “maw” is an old word for mouth, lest you thought I was suggesting you take your mother with you to a business lunch.) Besides, your lunchmate will doubtless derive entertainment value from your being an unworldly boob, so let him or her pay for the privilege of having to explain why you’re eating Ethiopian cuisine, on a floor, with your hands, in a shopping mall food court.

3.MONTH OF YEAR/DAY OF WEEK/TIME OF DAY. I’d have included PLACE OF ORIGIN but ran out of slash marks. The point is that these three factors may have a bearing on who gets treated and who gets stiffed after lunch.

For example, if you’re asked to lunch during the winter holidays—which now run from the day after Labor Day until the final recap of the Super Bowl—it seems only fair that in a festive seasonal spirit, the inviter should cough up the do-re-mi.

Same thing if you’re invited to lunch on a Wednesday (“hump day”), Thursday (“post-hump day”) or Friday (“Friday”), all of which foreshadow the conclusion of a difficult work week, even if it wasn’t especially difficult.

The appointed time for the lunch also has ramifications vis a vis who antes up when it’s time to settle the damages. It should be the other person’s responsibility if you were:

a. Forced to attend an 11:30 lunch, which may as well be called breakfast, you’ve been inconvenienced by having your productive morning cut short, even if it wasn’t especially productive (see “difficult work week” above);

b. Made to suffer hunger pangs all morning waiting to go to a “continental” “luncheon” at 1:30 or 2. You may even have grounds to file an elder-abuse lawsuit even if you’re not especially elder; or

c. Invited to lunch at high noon, in an attempt to lure you into oppressive conventionality.

Ultimately, Elaine Corn and I decided to have lunch together by going “Dutch.” Well, wooden shoe?

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).