Elegant restaurant with staff putting out reserved sign

The Penrose Room in Colorado Springs, Colorado, still serves food on hand-painted china, enforces a dress code (albeit one that allows jeans) and staffs a full-time maître d’hôtel, who manages the restaurant’s service with the same precision the chef manages the cuisine.

“It makes sense,” says Gareth Tootell, manager of the restaurant in the Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado’s only Forbes Five Star/AAA Five Diamond dining spot. “It fits the model of service that we want to be able to offer our guests, and it fits the feel, design and classic fine dining nature of the restaurant.”

In the traditional role, a maître d’ is ideal for adding structure to a dining room, notes Tootell, who joined the Penrose Room from a position as sommelier at The French Laundry, and worked previously for Daniel Boulud at Restaurant Daniel, Boulud Sud and Bar Boulud. “If there is any common thread that runs through the best restaurants in the country, it is precisely that ‘structure,’ so the two often go hand in hand.” If there isn’t a traditional maître d’, the restaurant has to tie all of those traditional responsibilities into different roles.

 

These days that is more often the norm, notes Jason Berry, co-founder with Michael Reginbogin of Knead Hospitality + Design, which owns and operates Succotash DC, Succotash National Harbor, and the soon-to-open Mi Vida in D.C.’s Wharf neighborhood.

“Most high-end dining destinations offer something similar to a maître d’–i.e., a service manager/director or perhaps the general manager themselves depending on the size and volume of the restaurant,” Berry says. “Ultimately, the title is antiquated, but the responsibilities remain.”

Antiquated or no, at Succotash, all those responsibilities—accommodating the guest upon arrival, managing their reservation desires and status, and overseeing the seamless transition from arrival to being seated—still fall to a classic maître d’.

“They are the embodiment of the restaurant, available and eager to part the seas and exude hospitality at every turn,” says Berry.  “They must be able to handle incredible pressure at all times and to never lose composure.”

restaurant service putting out tablecloths

They also must recognize repeat guests, and cultivate new ones, adds Knead co-founder Reginbogin.  “Hourly staff may not be as motivated or invested in achieving this level of hospitality when dealing with hundreds, sometimes over a thousand reservations per day in any of our locations,” he says. “By having a familiar face, one that is empowered and only looking out for the best interest of our guests, we increase the ability to consistently improve guest retention and increase our following.”

New technology is also helping. Restaurant management systems like Upserve track repeat guests and improve communication between all portions of the restaurant.  These systems can even integrate with restaurant’s POS, so owners know exactly how valuable each customer is to their bottom line.

Recognizing regulars is a critical function at the front of the house, and one best handled by management or an owner, agrees Nancy Batista-Caswell, proprietor of Caswell Restaurants, which operates two restaurants in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and Oak + Rowan in Boston, which was recently awarded the best new restaurant of 2017 by Boston magazine. She is at the door of one of her restaurants most nights, and also has a maître d’ at Oak + Rowan.

“Christine [Smith, Oak + Rowan maître d’] recognizes faces,” Batista-Caswell says. “Recognition creates loyalty.”

If you want to go the traditional route, finding the right person to fill that role can be challenging these days. “It’s an odd eclectic skill set that takes years of training to accrue,” says Tootell, who adds that most restaurants will usually have to hire someone who has the guest-facing skills that are very difficult to teach–charm, charisma, polish, a genuine sense of hospitality, a drive to serve–then teach wine and beverage knowledge, tableside service, management, organization, event planning, and time management.

 

L’Adresse American Bistro in Manhattan is among the majority that opt out of having a maître d’, given the size of the restaurant and a more casual refined dining atmosphere, says assistant general manager Daria Ettelson, adding that the general manager and managers take on that role. However, the Russia native notes that skipping the maître d’ is less the norm overseas, and that studies show that tangible service factors, such as a maître d’, can get a guest more engaged.

“The position is still very much respected in Moscow, as there are many restaurants that require this level of management and service,” Ettelson says, adding that in some ways fine dining has suffered with the phasing out of the maître d’, taking away one of the service factors that can influence the emotional state and behavior of guests.

Batista-Caswell is sure high-end dining has suffered as the maître d’ has vanished. “Most people just hire a young hostess,” she says, noting that with the rise of the chef/owner who can’t run the door and be on the line at the same time, the role of maître d’ is perhaps more important than ever.

nice restaurant with white table cloths

Conversely, Knead Hospitality’s Berry says in some instances, the restaurant may function better without one. “Replacements for the traditional maître d’ are often more empowered than the classic version,” he says, noting that management roles have become intertwined for the sake of both efficiency and cost. “The replacement of the classic maître d’ in some venues may in fact be a floor manager with front door responsibilities that pertain to managing the book and guest experience at arrival, or perhaps shared by multiple managers ensuring coverage seven days a week.”

The Penrose Room’s Tootell sees the disappearance of the maître d’ more as an evolution than a demise. “From my experience, I am not sure that I would say high end dining has suffered,” he says. “I tend to feel like we go through waves and trends, but great restaurants at the highest level seem far more widespread and prevalent today than they were 50 years ago. The culture of fine dining spans back so far that reading stories of Roman feasts from 300 BCE to grand Chinese banquets in the 1600s makes me realize that we are just the latest form of fine dining and will inevitably develop and transform as dining culture evolves.”

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Jeanne O’Brien Coffey comes from a long line of New England foodies – her dad once traded an old car for a dozen lobsters and her grandmother’s whoopie pie recipe is a closely guarded secret. She is contributing food editor at Northshore magazine, blogs on food, wine and travel for ForbesLife and is a contributing writer at Naturally, Danny Seo magazine. Oh, and she was obsessed with Negronis way before they were cool.