Before the days of online restaurant reservations, and before the current emphasis on casual dining, the maître d’ was at the center of the restaurant experience.
Take, for example, Louis Risoli. He was, up until quite recently, the maître d’ at L’Espalier, one of Boston’s most renown fine dining restaurants. For thirty-four years Risoli curated experiences for a wide variety of guests, becoming something of a Bean Town legend in the process. He paid excruciating attention to detail: “A slight rise in the shoulder can say more than anything a guest could ever tell you. Sometimes it means you need to focus a little more. Maybe they’re thinking they’re not getting enough attention. If something distracts you for a split-second, in that second, you maybe lose them a little bit because you weren’t with them. You have to redirect.”
Traditionally, the maître d’ oversees the reservation book and overall guest experience. They are the people who remember guests’ names, whether they’ve dined at the restaurant one time or a hundred times. They are responsible for paying attention to even the most minute details, ensuring that guests feel that the staff has curated an experience exclusively for them. Additionally, back in the day, the maître d’ at your favorite restaurant was an important person to know, considering his power over bookings; the personal experiences were reciprocal.
With all of the self-promotion opportunities provided by social media, there is less of a need for a maître d’ to serve as the face of a restaurant, which is also a traditional aspect of the position. Additionally, with online reservations, there is less of a need for a familiar face at the host stand – ultimately all that person ends up doing is showing guests to their tables. There are still people responsible for controlling the room, but today they have different titles and responsibilities are often split between two or more people.
Asked about these hospitality changes, Philippe Place, the maître d’ at Southerleigh in San Antonio, says that “It used to really mean something when a maître d’ would hold a hard-to-get 7 o’clock reservation on a Friday evening.” More and more restaurants, however, no longer see the necessity of these kinds of figures.
That’s not to say maître d’s are an entirely dying breed – they can still be found at a number of places, especially restaurants that have been around for a long time, and high-end establishments. At L’Espalier, owner and chef Frank McClelland began training Federico Salvador, the restaurant’s service director, to step into Risoli’s shoes way before he announced his retirement. Like a small but proud number of other restauranteurs, he is committed to what traditional maître d’s mean for hospitality.