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The Dine-o-saurs

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.

Once called Larry the Legend by a Las Vegas sportswriter, Cullen voiced several themes common among the maitre d's with whom I spoke. For one, there's a little streak of Willy Loman in all of them; being well liked pretty much tops the hierarchy of needs. Secondly, the career maitre d' acknowledges that subservience is the nature of his work, and instead of shying away from it, he embraces it, even revels in it. Says Cullen: "A good maitre d' watches everything and everybody and remembers what they like. Steak well done. No garlic. Dressing to the side. But it's not just the remembering; it's the caring. Corporate people just don't get that."

All point to an inherently theatrical aspect of the work. You are to be warm and personal, and yet you are reading from a script that does not allow you to utter any of the miseries that life may have visited upon you in the previous 48 hours or, for that matter, the previous 48 years. "Show time!" Cullen says. "Hey, I've had the longest-running acting job in town! I'm an Irishman who's been playing an Italian for 27 years! Personal problems? Leave 'em in your coat pocket."

Above all, as opposed to the vibrating pager of P.F. Chang's, the maitre d' knew who you were and whom you were married to and, perhaps more importantly, whom you were not married to. "If a guy had an older wife, you stroke her more" than younger women in the room, the Legend says. "If he comes with a cutie, though, you seat him somewhere else." Pure Rat Pack, to be sure, but there is a lesson here: An old-school maitre d' has enough on you to get you strung up by your thumbs, yet you trust him with the information.

Or at least a previous generation did.

Then along came Clinton special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who maybe did as much to change American dining culture as Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower. Cuddle with a cutie in a darkened back booth? Sounds like a subpoena waiting to happen. If I were a misbehaving captain of industry, I'd seriously consider trading Larry the Legend for the vibrating pager, even though he's the last person I could imagine wearing a wire.

Chasen's, Scandia, Perino's, Romanoff's, Ciro's. There was a time when Los Angeles' dining scene—and here the word "scene" deserves special emphasis—was limited to a few choices. When more people want tables at a restaurant than there are tables, the maitre d' emerges as dispenser of access, lord of the realm, keeper of the key. The maitre d' need not curry favor with his customers; customers need to curry favor with the maitre d'. Hence, the green handshake. In restaurant parlance, it's referred to as "selling tables." As in, 100 bucks seats you within Steven Spielberg's line of sight.

This is not a practice that maitre d's willingly own up to, and while I was initially skeptical of their denials, I began to believe them. It's bad business. Of course, some played favorites, but according to Irish-born restaurateur Jimmy Murphy, who recently opened Jimmy's Tavern in West L.A., quid pro quo is shortsighted. "I never looked for a tip, but Americans are very generous, and if you take care of them, they do reward you," says Murphy, who came to town in 1963 and worked at the Bistro in Beverly Hills. "Selling tables was never my style. My first thought was to look after the house. Because if you sell tables, that's $50 they don't spend in the restaurant. Having said that, if they give it to you on their way out the door, it's fine. In those days, you could make quite a nice living. As for selling tables, I think it happened in Las Vegas more than here, and it certainly doesn't happen today."

One of the reasons it doesn't is that Los Angeles is a much better place to eat than it used to be. We are a city of many fine and innovative restaurants. Choice alone has diminished the role of the maitre d'. But there's something else. A funny thing happened on the way to Chez Panisse. Americans in general, and Californians in particular, became enchanted with, well, cuisine. Art for art's sake. The food became the star, and by extension, so did the chef. People wanted surprise more than reassurance. Chefs now provide the former, maitre d's the latter.

Bernard Erpicum, whose reputation varies from icon to legend to relic—depending on whom you ask—saw this new sensibility firsthand and ushered it to the table. He made a name for himself at Ma Maison, owned by Patrick Terrail, by sussing out the wine preferences of people such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Harrison and Orson Welles, who daily deposited himself like a block of granite behind a table on the restaurant's patio.

Ma Maison was, of course, the proving ground for Wolfgang Puck, who brought Erpicum on board as wine steward and maitre d' when he opened Spago in 1982. Through the 1980s, Spago flourished in a way that seems all but impossible now. Puck was at the vanguard of a national culinary revolution, and Spago emerged as a hybrid between an old-fashioned Hollywood hot spot and a dining mecca for people who truly loved food. Whoopi Goldberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger flocked there, as did other industry titans, and Erpicum accommodated and appeased them.

Erpicum's stewardship of the original Spago helped define the era, along with Tina Brown's Vanity Fair, trickle-down economics and a perverse infatuation with people who had it better than you. But those days are gone. Spago, now in its second incarnation in Beverly Hills, no longer employs a maitre d'.

During a recent chat with Erpicum, who now works as a hospitality consultant, I found myself strangely touched. For years he had read the trades, knew the players and was up on the news so he could congratulate his guests on the smallest uptick in their profile or mourn that their soap opera character was diagnosed with cancer. According to Giuseppe Pezzotti, a senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, the maitre d' historically was expected not only to be familiar with his guests, but also to possess a certain knowledge of current events as well as literature and art—whatever was au courant.

"It's not like it used to be, is it?" I said.

"No," Erpicum said mournfully, his eyes as sad as a basset hound's. "At Spago, I could make $300 to $400 a night. I got very spoiled. It's been very, very difficult."

He wouldn't put it this way himself, but Erpicum can make a legitimate claim, verified by Jimmy Murphy and others, to creating the monster that helped further diminish the maitre d's station in life. He may have created the Celebrity Chef. "Even at Ma Maison, I would force Wolfgang out of the kitchen and make him say hello to the guests," he told me. "I had to drag him! His face was as red as a tomato from standing over the stove. After a while he got used to it, and after a while people were interested in the personality of the chef more than the maitre d'. Before, this was not so."

And so, another hit to the helm.

Erpicum sipped his wine, took a breath and went on. "In Europe, we have class distinctions. Here, it's money that talks. But the strange thing is I would hear that people would perceive their social status according to how I treated them." Erpicum stared wistfully into his wine. "This is very strange. Very powerful. I didn't realize it at the time. It was only later that I really understood that people would say that I created their social status. When I did, it was really quite disturbing."

It's difficult to imagine people these days investing that sort of psychic power in anyone, let alone a guy in a tuxedo, to the extent that we did in the 1980s. Post-Enron, garish consumption has lost some of its luster. We've had to face a feeble economy and a war. Tina's Talk magazine is dead, and being beautiful is not what it used to be.

"Let me tell you, the days when you'd be laughed at for trying to make a last-minute reservation at a restaurant are gone," observes Donato Poto, manager and maitre d' of Bastide, which is in a better position to blow attitude than any other restaurant in Los Angeles right now—but doesn't. Fading, too, are the proverbial "power tables," which in the old days were the ace up any maitre d's sleeve.

"When I worked at Primi, people were always freaking out about power tables," Poto says. "It was mostly in their imagination. Once I had a client who was on the verge of tears because he thought his status had dropped when he got seated at a different table, purely by accident. Well, when you're a maitre d' you have to think fast. 'Don't you know? That's the new power table!' I told him. Then word got around, and for several months everybody wanted the new power table. But things have changed so much. We have a lot of Hollywood people come into Bastide, but a lot of other kinds of people too, and they're really much more interested in enjoying the food and the service than anything else. I think that kind of softens the atmosphere."

Efficiency issues also come into play. "I think the maitre d' has kind of eliminated himself," says Lawrence Moore, a veteran restaurateur and now the marketing director for the Chaya Group, whose restaurants, like most, have resorted to floor managers and hostesses. "Now you can't just have someone with a great personality and who doesn't know the ropes, because the health department will shut you down in 15 minutes," she says. "L.A. has the toughest department in the country, and the regulations change all but daily. So we have three managers at every restaurant, and they've all got a lot on their minds. Also, the dining culture has changed. Younger people were never taught to tip and be subtle about it. That whole secret world and secret way of doing things has been lost." (This is a point with which Messrs. Cullen and Erpicum roaringly agree.)

Still, like an endangered species in a wildlife refuge, the maitre d' lives on. "This way, this way," murmurs Dimitri Dimitrov in tones worthy of a Latin Mass. He is the manager and maitre d' of 17 years at Diaghilev in the Wyndham Bel Age in West Hollywood. "Please, please, please," as you are ushered to your chair.

At this point, Dimitrov exists in a rather glorious time warp. He began his career at age 18 in London and cut his teeth observing the protocols for serving royalty in Montreal. While his career has taken him from Bermuda to Los Angeles, there is still a thread of vestigial czarist Russia in his balletic orchestration of the floor, where he neatly adjusts to guests that range from visiting European dignitaries to Courteney Cox Arquette and the band Limp Bizkit. When carrying out a request, he folds his hands into a namaste and tilts back his head. His gestures remind you in many ways of a silent movie actor, and indeed he has appeared in movies as a maitre d' and coached actors on how to act like one. When he tells you about the salmon, it's as if he's confiding a deeply held family secret. He is there to serve you, and he inhabits this station with unwavering presence. It is his life.

I recently took a longtime friend, a native of Spain, to Diaghilev for her birthday. Dimitrov immediately pegged her as being from Madrid, though most people think she's French, and she is nothing if not the princess from the story "The Princess and the Pea." After dinner I asked her what she thought about the service.

"I felt that it was my night to be served, that it was all done for me."

And that beats a vibrating pager any day.

Martin Booe last wrote for the magazine about restaurateur Silvio de Mori.

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