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The Restaurant Guide 2003

The Dine-o-saurs

Maitre D's Once Ruled the Earth, or at Least Their Little Corners of It.Times Change.

June 22, 2003|Martin Booe | Martin Booe last wrote for the magazine about restaurateur Silvio de Mori.

There was a time when it was generally accepted that a restaurant aspiring to become a dining hot spot needed a good maitre d'. The specific duties varied from establishment to establishment, but one attribute was prized above all: personality. Be his demeanor casual, effete, wisecracking or obsequious, the maitre d' set the restaurant's tone. He (and with rare exception it indeed was a male) was the face, if not the soul, of the restaurant. The man who, if you were a regular, knew your name, your drink and how you liked your steak. The best of them had a small-town politician's instinct for making guests feel personally appreciated.

A generation or two ago, caricatures of the maitre d' abounded in popular culture, even among people who had little or no firsthand experience with them. You saw them in movies and cartoon strips, and the caricatures ran along a fairly contemptuous line: The aloof Frenchman awaiting the "green handshake" before showing a guest to a coveted table. The tuxedoed figure walking ahead of you, Groucho-style, hands clasped behind his back, palms upward, fingers wriggling like fishing worms on a hook. Or the paragon of quivering sycophancy or, conversely, the font of withering condescension who frightened innocent Midwestern tourists away from expensive big-city restaurants.

Those images surely had tap roots in the truth, but that's not really the point. The fact is that today younger diners wouldn't even get the joke.

Twenty-five years ago, maitre d's were one-man institutions. They came in many incarnations, from those who started as dishwashers to those who formally trained in European hotels. In restaurants it was taken for granted that both the spirit and the execution of hospitality would be in the hands of the maitre d'. But times have changed. For better or worse, the old-school maitre d's are a vanishing species. Of course, they didn't just go away. Restaurants are run differently these days, and diners have changed. The reasons say a lot about how the culture of dining has developed during the past 20 years, and about the larger culture as well.

About two years ago, I went to review the new P.F. Chang's in Orange County for this newspaper. At the hostess station, I was handed a vibrating pager and dispatched to the bar to await my table. I ordered a cocktail and wondered if there were such a thing as the Aldous Huxley School of Hospitality. P.F. Chang's is a phenomenally successful restaurant chain, offering good value for the price. It's also something that did not exist 30 years ago: an industrial operation with creative intelligence. On the surface, any comparison to higher-end, non-franchised restaurants, say Morton's or the Palm, might seem imperfect to the point of being futile.

But is it really? I sipped my towering, high-octane frou-frou cocktail, and then another, and then realized I'd failed to detect the cosmic vibrations of my electronic pager. My table had been given away, though I was seated fairly promptly at another. But in the meantime, I'd been wondering if the sheer impersonality of the venue--majestic in its starkness, cavernous in scale, thundering in din--was part of P.F. Chang's success. One's choice of a restaurant used to have communal implications beyond sitting down to dinner with friends. No longer. We used to meet each other on Main Street; now we wander through malls. We live in a country where, in recent memory, someone suggested that cable television repairmen be deputized to inform the government of suspicious activities. Does anyone really want to go to a place where everybody knows your name?

In heroic contrast, the old-school maitre d' was part stagehand, part therapist and part consigliere. "Look at me!" barks Larry Cullen, to whom I'd told my vibrating pager story. For 17 years he was the maitre d' at Matteo's, the venerable red-sauce pasta repository in West L.A. that has catered to Hollywood's old guard for decades. (He also put in 10 years there as head waiter.) "I'm a dying breed! And the reason is it's all corporate now, and they just don't get it."

That's part of the answer, anyway. Cullen knew Frank Sinatra always got table 8. Milton Berle, table 12. George Burns, table 13. Regulars Ronald Reagan, Lucille Ball, Don Rickles and Bob Newhart also had their favorite nests, so you get the idea. Cullen retired two years ago to Ohio (where he works part time in a restaurant), but he was back in town recently to visit his children and had donned his tuxedo three nights a week because . . . well, because Matteo's needed him and the people who eat at Matteo's needed him. As I sat there, every person who came in or out of the restaurant hugged him like a favorite uncle.

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