After the chef, he is easily the most important person in the restaurant; in some restaurants I’d go so far as to say he is the most important. Yet this fine breed of individuals is dying out, and at an increasing and worrying pace. Once the maître d’ was lord of all he surveyed (as long as he was surveying the dining room he oversaw), but today this is no longer true. I can’t count how many times over the last few years I have left a restaurant of note feeling that a quality meal had been let down by the service and its effect on the atmosphere.
Prior to the 1980s, the maître d’ was most likely either the owner or a former military man, most likely a non-commissioned officer, and these men ran their dining rooms with military precision. They knew their role was twofold: to manage the staff, and to ensure that the diner had a good experience so would come again. After all, happy customers mean money and success for a restaurant.
This still is the role of a maitre d’, and those at the top of their game can earn six-figure salaries, with serious chefs and restaurateurs doing all they can to poach them from competitors. But there seems to be a great shortage of them, and I’m betting that even those performing poorly are paid well.
Diners miss out due to the unceremonious way they are dealt with – and restaurants lose potential earnings
I am not alone in my disappointment. Friends also complain about shoddy service, and in particular the rather lacking quality of maître d’s. One acquaintance told of a recent visit to The Wolseley for a friend’s birthday. Upon booking they were told they only had the table for two hours, as it was required for another reservation at nine o’clock. They were fine with this and that they were reminded of it upon arrival; their problem came with the service. Left some time before being asked for their order, more time was lost when their salmon arrived cold and one of the waiters had to check whether this was the correct temperature of service. It turned out that it should have been warm and was returned to the kitchen to be replaced with a correctly heated dish.
All this meant they were running behind any sort of schedule that would enable them to complete a three-course meal in two hours, normally a perfectly reasonable aim. Next thing they know, it’s nine and the maître d’ rocks up and bluntly tells them he needs the table so they must leave. They hadn’t even got to dessert, and were presented with the bill rather than an alternative location to finish their dinner – even seats at the bar or similar would have been acceptable. There was no hint of an apology or an attempt to accommodate, despite the fact that they had not finished their meal was the fault of the restaurant staff. They had intended to order dessert and a bottle of Muscat, and had told the restaurant in advance of the birthday, for which the restaurant had said they would prepare something with the dessert. Instead, they missed out due to the unceremonious way they were dealt with – and the restaurant missed out on additional earnings.
The maître d’ fundamentally failed in all aspects if his job. The waitress should have been made aware of the time constraint in the pre-service meeting (a meeting that should take place in all restaurants), and the waiter should have known how dishes should have been served, rather than investigating at the eleventh hour.
Where chefs have a number of restaurants and spread their talent too thinly, you can be lucky to see the maître d’ at some establishments
It seems that, increasingly, maître d’s are becoming poorer at their jobs and the diners’ experience is becoming poorer because of it. Unfortunately, the restaurants most infected by this spreading disease seem to be the one-star Michelins and the Michelin hopefuls, particularly where the chefs and owners have a number of restaurants and spread their talent too thinly, assigning responsibility for several locations to one person. These days you can be lucky to see the maître d’ at some establishments.
Recently I had a three-course meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant that took almost four hours, all because of service. We had a table for six, and the food was brought on a tray by one waiter to be served by one of the head waiters. You might reasonably expect twice those numbers; here, serving the table took two trips each time. Our food was standing around getting cold because of lack of training or effective management – responsibilities firmly with the maître d’. Not what one expects of Pollen Street Social, and evidence of my observation that restaurants suffer when their owner chefs expand; I have dined there twice before, on both occasions before Atherton’s recent expansions, and both service and food were better, in no small part due to the fact he was visibly in the kitchen running the pass.
It’s intangible, but conspicuous when absent
When a restaurant is not being overseen properly it is all too noticeable, even when the waiters are fulfilling their roles to high standards. There is, for lack of any better way of describing it, something missing. It’s hard to put your finger on it, it’s intangible, but it is conspicuous when absent; it’s a feeling one has, a feeling of a degree of limpness.
Some maître d’s appear to feel that certain tasks are beneath them. They have a large brigade of waiting staff with set duties in an operational hierarchy; no-one does a job below or above their station. It once was the case that if you needed something and asked a waiter, they would do it anyway, especially if their colleague who would usually oblige was otherwise engaged. But not anymore. Recently I asked a junior waitress laying a table near to mine for another glass of water. She said she would get me a glass but, instead of pouring water from a jug within her reach, she went off to tell someone else to do it and then returned to laying the table. Meanwhile, I sat staring at the jug; I was on the verge of doing it myself before someone else finally turned up to complete the mission.
Sometimes it’s impossible to tell which member of the waiting staff is running the show, or even if there is one. I had another Michelin-starred meal lately wherein I don’t think even the waiters knew!
I don’t know why this is happening. Is it part of the trend towards a less formal dining experience? I have no problem with starred restaurants moving towards the more informal; it suits me fine. The best restaurant experiences come from either informal service or impeccable silver service. Unfortunately, what most of these supposedly top establishments seem to offer is neither one nor the other; they seem lost.
So restaurateurs, chefs and, yes, maître d’s, please, please take note, and either reverse this slide or ensure you don’t join it. No matter how good the food is, if diners don’t enjoy the experience, they won’t be coming back.
For a tract on the role of the maître d’, there are few better than the one included in Lt.-Col. Newnham-Davis’s 1914 The Gourmets Guide to London, written in a letter to him by the maître d’hotel at the Savoy. Languages skills at the ready – it’s in French.
Image from The Gourmets Guide to London