A Maitre d'Hotel, often abbreviated as Maitre d', is the headwaiter of a dining establishment, responsible for ensuring that the connection between kitchen and dining room runs smoothly. In French, the title means “master of the establishment,” but the word has also been accepted into common English usage. Typically, only fine dining establishments have one, although managers, hosts, and wait captains often serve the same function. A highly trained Maitre d' is a food service professional who can act as a sommelier, offer table side finishing of food such as flaming creme brulee, keep a wait staff organized, and smoothly deal with customer complaints and issues.
In an establishment that uses a Maitre d', he or she is the first person guests of the restaurant interact with when they walk in the door, and often when reservations are made as well. It is this person's job to create a positive and welcoming impression for guests while deciding where on the restaurant floor to seat them. Seating choices are largely predicated by the number of available wait staff. Waiters are typically assigned sections of the dining area, and the headwaiter tries to seat customers evenly, so that waiters will not be over or underloaded with customers. In addition to being more fair to the staff, this ensures better service for customers.
The Maitre d' also manages the wait staff, establishing schedules, assigning sections, and dealing with issues that come up in the workplace. He or she also serves as the liaison between the kitchen and the floor, communicating with runners, chef, and other kitchen staff to keep things running well. While supervising house staff, he or she may also make hiring and firing decisions, in consultation with other members of upper management such as the executive chef and the owner.
In addition, the headwaiter often handles customer complaints, both in the form of issues that arise on the floor and when customers write formal written complaints. This requires a high level of tact, sensitivity, and sensibleness. In smaller establishments, the owner may serve in this role, or alternate with a hired professional, which is something important to keep in mind if a problematic situation arises in the restaurant.
Tipping is not required or expected when dealing with a Maitre d', but guests are welcome to tip if he or she provides exemplary service, such as securing a particularly fine table, making special arrangements to cope with food allergies, or performing some other small service. When tips are offered, it should be done so discreetly and at the end of the evening, and attempts to bribe or buy the person's service are generally viewed as tactless.