As the name suggests, “maitre d’hotel” (hotel master) tended to be used most often in hotels. In a large enterprise a maitre d’hotel would supervise multiple headwaiters, each of whom had charge of service in one of its multiple dining spaces. Those could include a formal dining room, a supper-room, a grill room, banquet rooms, and/or a café lounge. Over time, the positions of maitre d’hotel and headwaiter were collapsed into one, yet both terms remained in use.
The man (99.9% of the time) playing that role became the public face of a restaurant or hotel dining room. Like celebrities, he was often known by one name only. A counterpart of the chef who ruled the kitchen, he ruled the front of the house. In addition to being completely in charge of the dining room and its service, he might hire, train, and supervise the entire waitstaff as well as plan private dinners and banquets, take reservations, admit and seat guests, make recommendations and take orders, and prepare special dishes at the table.
Whether called maitre d’hotel or headwaiter, historically the person filling this role was an imposing physical figure, large, tall, and very well dressed. In this country during the 19th century the role was most often filled by a Black man, usually working in an American-plan hotel where meals were included in the cost of lodging. [L. D. Houston, shown here in 1904, worked in New York and for a time in Hong Kong where he went to escape U. S. racism.] Dressing the part was essential. During the 1930s Depression a nightclub performer in Paris entertained his audience by describing a headwaiter as “The only man in the place whose clothes fit.”
The maitre d’hotel (shortened to maitre d’ over time) or headwaiter could have a wide variety of duties depending upon the size of the dining facilities. An expensive, full-service restaurant that was French or international might have captains, waiters, wine stewards, and busboys in addition to a maitre d’. In the 20th century, a popular maitre d’, having reached the pinnacle of the waiting profession while working for someone else, might look for partners or backers and become the host of his own restaurant.
A prominent example of someone who worked his way up from waiter to owner/maitre d’ was the late Sirio Maccioni of New York’s famed Le Cirque. Other well known maitre d’s — who stayed at their posts for about 50 years each — were “Oscar” and “Hoxter.” Oscar Tschirky of the Waldorf was said to be the first to rope off a doorway, while Stansbury Hoxter of Boston’s Parker House was known for his smile and his infallible memory. [Portrait of Stansbury Hoxter courtesy of his great, great, great nephew James Bell.]
Although some maitre d’s who had immigrated from Europe arrived with hotel school training, usually the headwaiter/maitre d’ reached his position after considerable time working his way up the dining room hierarchy. He may have begun as a busboy or waiter, then advanced to captain of a group of waiters, and finally to headwaiter. Along the way he would have proved his ability to judge a guest’s social status, underwritten by his astute understanding of human behavior. It was expected that he not only remembered regular guests’ names and faces, but also knew their favorite dishes.
Although many Americans probably never encountered a maitre d’, he became a figure in popular culture. In 1927 the debonair Adolphe Mange played one in a silent-era rom-com.
While it’s true that favored guests at luxury restaurants appreciate the services of a maitre d’ who saves them “their” table, treats them with great care, and knows their likes and dislikes, many Americans have not reacted well to what they regard as haughty judges of their social rank who may treat them poorly or even turn them away. Despite the geniality of well-liked headwaiters, to many people the overall impression created by this personage is a feeling of cold formality. According to a 1940 opinion piece in a restaurant industry journal, diners did not like bowing nor “that type of waiter service that constantly rearranges your bread-and-butter-plate and water glass . . . and then frequently walks by your table to see if you are eating properly.”
That may be why in more recent times even an upscale, expensive restaurant probably does not have a formally dressed maitre d’ greeting guests. That role is more likely to be filled by a younger person, frequently a woman, who probably does not run the entire dining room nor hire the staff. She may nod her head as she hands guests a menu but does not bow.
© Jan Whitaker, 2020