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Turning the Tables : Three Los Angeles Maitre D's Know How to Put Customers in Their Places

September 20, 1987|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a frequent restaurant reviewer for the Calendar section and has himself been a maitre d'.

IF YOU ARE inclined to dismiss the typical maitre d' as little more than a traffic cop in a Givenchy suit, you'd better have another look. It's not an easy job.

The basic requirements for the position are management ability and a natural affinity for the public, but those talents alone won't cut it in the trendier establishments, where demand is high and a "good table" is as much of a status indicator as an Italian sports car. Westside maitre d's need the diplomatic skills of a SALT negotiator, especially when the dining room is overbooked and patience is wearing thin. The maitre d' has to be able to say just the right word and sense just the right moment to offer a soothing glass of wine before tempers flair and someone goes storming out the door. And even those skills don't suffice.

Extensive knowledge of food and wine is a must, because the public has an insatiable demand for novelty, and it's embarrassing to be caught unawares. Even more embarrassing is the failure to recognize an important client, or a gaffe--like "Nice to see you again, Mrs. O'Brien" when it's Mrs. O'Brien's first visit to the restaurant. Or when it isn't Mrs. O'Brien. It's scenarios like this that make a maitre d' need the memory of a chess master.

Many maitre d's work their way up through the ranks, starting as waiters or even busboys. Many others come directly from hotel and restaurant schools. But no matter what their backgrounds, a thorough knowledge of service is a must; maitre d's train the staff to serve the food and set and clear the tables properly. A host or hostess will not go around from table to table talking to people and will not assist in menu or wine selection.

The maitre d' is a tipped employee, which raises the touchy issue of gratuities. Contrary to silly rumors, Westside maitre d's do not drive Bentleys or live in Trousdale Estates unless they are receiving major palimony, and tips are a part of their livelihood. Just remember, you can't always buy a table, no matter how much you're willing to pay; sometimes there just aren't any to be had. It's better to tip after service or, if you are a regular customer, on holidays; it's much more discreet, and it adds to your prestige as well.

Here's a glimpse at three members of this working-class elite.

Breakfast: It's barely 8 a.m. in the Polo Lounge, and Bernice Philbin has already shifted into overdrive. Philbin has been the breakfast maitre d' in the Beverly Hills Hotel for 37 years; she runs her dining room with an iron grace. Don't even think about buying a table from her; she'll seat you where you belong, and you'll like it.

The Polo Lounge is the mecca for power breakfasting, where high-octane agents and studio hotshots write deals on napkins and constantly compete for tables near No. 3, the center booth where Marvin Davis, movie magnate, hotelier and deal maker extraordinaire, holds daily court. Philbin directs traffic and handles it with the ease of a mother seating her children in church pews. She coddles with authority.

"Rule No. 1 is never seat people in the same business near each other," she says. "They might be trying to close the same deal. Rule No. 2 is never violate someone's privacy. Let them initiate contact." Sage advice.

If you're wondering if things would be the same without her, the answer is: They wouldn't. Just ask Milton Berle. When a young hostess picked up the house phone as Berle was requesting his usual table, she replied, "Mr. Berle, yes, could you please spell that?"

"Get me Bernice, now ," Berle hissed.

Lunch: Thomas Glavan is gliding around the patio at Citrus, looking as if he's on roller skates. Citrus is one of the toniest new restaurants around and serves about 250 lunches a day. It takes a cool customer to handle the door.

Glavan, who also works as the dinner maitre d', is a real extrovert: He loves people, and he has a vulcanized smile to go with a killer wardrobe and boundless energy. Glavan is the quintessential European maitre d': He speaks several languages, is a stickler for service and has an unctuous client manner. He gives the impression of being French, but he's really from Zadar, Yugoslavia, on the Dalmatian coast. He's as smooth as a Bijan shirt.

Despite Glavan's outward demeanor, his philosophy is "to keep internally calm, as calm as possible." That's the best way to handle all that pressure, the Zen of a maitre d', you might say. Don't bother with excuses if you're late; he's heard them all: "My wife got sick," "The traffic is terrible," "We thought our reservation was at 12:30." What works with Glavan is patience. Don't be aggressive with him. He was the maitre d' at L'Ermitage for nine years, after all, a bastion of haute cuisine and formal dining, and he doesn't respond well to a hard sell. If you're a regular like Rod Stewart or Dolly Parton, he's not about to let you stand at the door. But if you're not, try the soft approach.

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