From the French maitre d’ hotel, which means, essentially, ‘Master of the House.’ Typically this title is unisex, applying to men or women in the position, as the feminized “Mistress of the house” has, *ahem*, un-egalitarian connotations.
In the restaurant, the ‘House’ has two sides; the Front of House and the Back of House. The Front of House encompasses the areas that customers interact with, the dining room, the hallways, washrooms, etc. It also contains the liminal spaces of the phone lines and reservation system. The Front of House can extend to Valet service, coatcheck in a complex fine dining establishment.
The Maitre D is the Master of the Front of House. This seemingly simple definition can be applied in multiple ways in various dining rooms. In some restaurants the Maitre D is the de facto manager. She may be responsible for overseeing staff assignments, monitoring service, coordinating arrangements with the kitchen, bar, as well as handling any employee issues that arise in the course of a service. The de facto manager style Maitre D will also be responsible for closing out the days’ cash/ credit card transactions, locking up the restaurant, etc.
Some people with the title Maitre D further act as the sommelier if the restaurant does not have one on staff.
In a fine dining operation with the full coterie of roles from Bread Server to Service Captain, however, the Maitre D may act more as the head waiter and lead host, greeting guests at the door, remembering repeat customers, making everyone feel welcome, and waiting on certain VIP tables himself.
Wherever you find one, however, the Maitre D is a good friend to have in the dining room. He is the best person to make special requests from (flowers to arrive at your table, a bottle of champagne waiting for you, a certain table for an important meal, or menus without prices listed on them when you are treating guests and want them to feel welcome to order anything). It is not out of place to offer a gratuity to a Headwaiter style Maitre D who has taken special care of you. But as some Maitre D’s are actually salaried managers and precluded from accepting tips, do not be surprised if a tip is rebuffed with a polite “Thank you, but a tip is not necessary.” If a Maitre D turns down a gratuity, it would be rude to continue to offer one.