Bread on the left, drink on the right. Whether you're the host or a guest, there's a whole lot to get straight at business meals. The No. 1 rule? It's not about the food. Here's how to avoid mealtime mishaps.

Pre-Meal PrepThat slinky dress or sloppy T-shirt isn't appropriate. "At a business meal, dress as though you're ready to do business," says Lois Hearn, founder of etiquette consultancy in Charleston, S.C. Arrive on time. If you're the host, alert the maître d' to give you the bill.

Booze Or No?Unless you're knocking off for the day, don't order a drink at lunch. You need to be alert back at the office and certainly don't want to smell of alcohol. At dinners, alcohol in moderation, of course is fine. If you're the host and want a drink, take the lead and order. If you don't drink, simply say, "No, thank you" when it's your turn. An explanation isn't necessary. Saying "I don't drink" just makes you sound smug or judgmental, says Hearn.

Orderly OrderingBe ready when the server arrives. If you're the host and no one's in a rush, order an appetizer so your guests will feel comfortable doing the same. Avoid anything messy like BBQ ribs and sauce-spattering pastas. And don't present the server with a long list of special requests. You don't want to seem too picky.

During DiningKeep the conversation mostly to work-related matters. It's fine to chat about other topics, but avoid anything personal, including "Are you married?" and "Do you have children?" When the bill comes, the host should discreetly look at it and place it near the table's edge with a credit card or cash. If you're splitting, ask what your share is and slip cash or card into the holder. And if you're being treated, don't diminish your host's hospitality by making a lunge for the bill.

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