Your local pizza spot doesn't have one. Your favorite deli or the chain restaurant down by the mall doesn't either. Depending on where you live, there may not be one in any local restaurant, but in a restaurant that has a maitre d', he's probably one of the most important employees in the place. It's a field that's so mysterious to the average American diner that many have never seen the title written down and think its spelled "restaurant metradee" or "metre de." The title, short for maitre d'hotel (French for "master of the hotel"), is reserved for highly skilled members of the hospitality field.
What a Maitre D' Does
A maitre d' typically wears several hats. Only upscale restaurants employ these professionals, who are nearly always men. The maitre d' is responsible for making sure everything runs smoothly in the front of the house – basically, all the parts of the restaurant that the customers see. Think of the maitre d' as a restaurant's head of customer service. He greets people as they arrive, visits tables to check on customers, and does everything he can to cater to each diner's needs.
The person in this job also oversees reservations and table assignments. If a loyal regular or a celebrity wants to dine at a prime table on Saturday night when the restaurant is packed, the maitre d' finds a way to make it happen. He also acts as a liaison between the front-of-house staff and kitchen staff, communicating with the cooks and food runners about any issues that are affecting the customers. In some restaurants, the maitre d' supervises waitstaff, hosts and other front-of-house staff. In large establishments, a dedicated floor manager may handle those duties.
A good maitre d' is friendly, tactful and smooth, so he can handle awkward situations without upsetting customers with deep pockets. He's also responsible for the overall atmosphere of the restaurant. He checks that table settings are laid correctly and makes choices about things such as lighting, music, temperature and decor.
What a Maitre D' Doesn't Do
If a restaurant is upscale enough to employ a maitre d', it probably has a few other specialists on its staff. The maitre d' doesn't usually make wine suggestions or pour wine for diners; that falls to the sommelier or wine steward. That said, a maitre d' should be knowledgeable enough to make those recommendations if no sommelier is present. Menu issues are also not the purview of the maitre d'. He typically doesn't have the authority to make changes to anything that has to do with food; the diners' experience is his area of expertise.
Even if the maitre d' supervises waitstaff and hosts each night, he's not usually their true manager. A fine-dining restaurant typically has at least one general manager who handles hiring, firing, payroll and budgets.
Finding Work as a Maitre D'
Don't expect to leverage your previous restaurant experience into a maitre d' job. Even in medium-sized cities, there may be just a handful of restaurants that have these positions. Your best bet is to live in a major city such as New York or Los Angeles. Even then, maitre d' jobs are scarce. Unless you have previous experience in the role or a similar one, look for any service job in a fine-dining restaurant and work your way up through the ranks.