Restaurant Ringmasters

It's a Friday night in the foyer of a tony restaurant somewhere in our fair metropolis. Last seating has come and gone, the kitchen can relax. Or perhaps not.

A man dressed in Hawaiian shirt, jeans and scruffy loafers has appeared 15 minutes late for his dinner reservation. His consort hisses, "Forget it. Let's have sushi," pulling him toward the door. But he will have none of it.

As if on cue, the maître d' capers toward them, his waxed ponytail bristling with skittish energy. He gamely clasps his patron's hands as he sneaks a peek at his watch. Dear, oh, dear, the kitchen will not be happy.

Nonetheless, this ringmaster graciously shows his guests into the dining room and scurries off to break the news to the chef before returning to soothe the savage psyche of the tardy vulgarian.

Such is the typical evening of the American maître d'hôtel.

Most diners will never be privy to such a spectacle. They pop in for their annual appearance at a posh dining establishment, enjoy themselves and say au revoir till next year.

But then there's the regular clientele, the ones who like quality chow or like to be seen. For them, the maître d' is a consultant, a confidant or a conspirator, depending on the occasion.

In any case, the contemporary restaurant host is a far cry from the cinematic cliché of a stuffed shirt brandishing a velvet-covered menu and wearing a sour, haughty look.

"By some people's estimation, it's a dying profession," muses John McCarthy, owner of the Whitney in downtown Detroit.

"With the advent of highly democratic restaurant chains, (maître d's) continue to remain only in fancy restaurants. They're not for everyone. They're for those diners who need and like to have that ongoing relationship with the restaurant, that ego stroke of recognition. Their job in particular is remembering faces and idiosyncrasies of individual customers. I think that they're the concierges of the restaurant business."

A restaurant is a complex ecology of emotions and actions, décor and decorum, with an equilibrium that requires constant care and manicuring.

"If the maître d' is at all civilized, it can be a very nice experience," suggests August St. John, a veteran waiter.

"Why? Because if they're of the right ilk, they try to promote civility, which from my experience seems very foreign to North America. They lay down the groundwork, they create a mood of civility."

St. John has worked as a waiter for more than 15 years at some of the finest restaurants in Chicago and New York. Time has taken its toll on his enthusiasm for the trade.

"If people don't like the maître d', the waiter has to step into an already rattled situation. Instead of getting off on the right foot, you've got to actually turn the situation around," he notes.

"Let's face it, Americans confuse politeness with sycophancy. Fawning is the gold standard when people are insecure. If the client senses any coldness whatsoever, they'll think, 'Jesus Christ, does this guy think I'm a stiff or my money isn't old enough or what?'"

That's because a good relationship between diner and server is a fragile part of the restaurant's ecosystem. "There's an inherent mistrust between a waiter and Joe X off the street. People think that the waiter is going to work them over. And the feeling's mutual. When a customer sits down, they're automatically sized up," St. John says.

Helena Meyers, another hardened trouper of chic vittle service, is even more blunt about the frayed relationship between waiter and customer.

"The modus operandi of a waiter is greed, pure and simple. An adroit ability to lie and put a positive spin on a situation are essential. And if that fails, then hope that fawning turns the trick," she says.

"Sometimes I carry on as if I'm in some bad Broadway play. Bat your eyelashes and stick out your bust. Whatever's necessary if the customer has not already proven they're a class act."

Harsh words, but they ring with a note of truth.

"Fine dining restaurants are by their nature not democratic," suggests McCarthy, who can often be found moonlighting as "dining room manager," the new term for the maître d', when he's not in his perch at the Whitney's bar.

"You like some people better than others and you can't help yourself," he says. "In the process of running a business, you run into a lot of people and for varying reasons, some people hit you different ways and you respond accordingly. The first 10 seconds are crucial, that's when you're dealing full on with the intangibles of fine dining."

Thus, it would seem, the maître d' is the alchemist not only of first impressions, but lasting impressions as well. As a result, it's ever more crucial that he or she know all aspects of the trade. For example, a growing trend in the fine dining business is to combine the maître d's responsibilities with those of the sommelier, or wine steward.

Not only does the maitre d' have to have a finely tuned sense of the room, he or she must also know what's on the menu and in the cellar, and then how to harmonize the two for fickle and often untutored palates.

"Most people haven't got a clue what to do with wine other than swill it down in between stuffing their face," laments one restaurateur-cum-maître d' who spoke anonymously.

"I've stayed up weeping some nights after watching what happened to beautiful wines that I had to pour. Yeah, it's their money and you want to educate them as best you can without ruining the experience. But if it weren't for personal integrity, I'd be tempted to do a few switches here and there, just to save me the heartache."

One area of the job description seems destined to remain unchanged, however: Discretion will always be the better part of valor.

"Men and women are known to go out to restaurants with someone other than their spouse," McCarthy remarks slyly. "So the maître d's job is to recognize the customer and sometimes not to recognize the customer, are you with me? You see people at their best and at their worst. And you have to rapidly adjust to the social climate of your guest." Especially if, like our man in the Hawaiian shirt, he brings his stormy weather to the table.

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