This section is from the book "The Steward's Handbook And Guide To Party Catering", by Jessup Whitehead. Also available from Amazon: Larousse Gastronomique.
The degree of importance of the head-waiter varies according to the disposition of different proprietors, for in some hotels the latter likes to pass up and down through his dining room and circulate among the guests and the headwaiter may have to take a back place. But in nearly all large hotels, particularly in the cities, the head-waiter is the head and front of the dining room, he is the only official the guests come in contact with, and with less restraint than if the proprietor himself were present they make known their wants and complaints to him. There is a vivid picture of the restaurant headwaiter in the sketch of "A Russian Restaurant," given on a former page. That personage is met with in every European hotel, and is the most prominent figure in every stranger's recollection of the place. He is called not headwaiter, but maitre-d'-hotel. In England he is frequently called manager. In this country he is called the inside steward in the European hotel or restaurant or club, and he is the same and his duties are the same as the headwaiter in the American plan dining room He it is that meets the visitors, sees them located, and if they are in any way special objects of attention, he is the one who hears their orders and sees that they are attended to.
In Paris, recently, an incident occurred where two men in shabby clothing, in the garb of laborers, but with money in their hands, went into one of the highest-class restaurants and would have ordered their dinner. The headwaiter (maitre d' hotel) said, "Gentlemen, your dress prevents your getting any dinner here." They would not be refused, but the police were called in and they were lawfully expelled. In England the law would have sustained them in their demand for dinner in any public eating house. The same would be the case in this country. The headwaiter in an American hotel knows what to do in such a case. He has obscure tables, lower end tables, middle-class tables, upper-class tables and exclusive tables, and he assorts strangers as they come and allots them to their tables according to their appearance or their deserts generally, without their being at all aware of the sorting process they are subjected to. That is what he is at the door for. The dining room is a public one, but with a good headwaiter in charge no dusty, travel-stained or ill-dressed customer will be put to shame by finding himself seated among the exclu-sives at an upper table.
This, however, is only one among the manifold duties of the headwaiter which requires a special kind of ability for its efficient performance.
It seems worth while to state this explicitly, there being such a general misconception in this regard. A person at table wants something and seeing the head-waiter standing by the door apparently idle motions to him and would send him after the thing desired; but the headwaiter can not go, he will send a waiter, but never leaves the dining room himself, unless there is extreme urgency. It Is true we are speaking generally of the larger and more expensive class of hotels, and proprietors in country towns expect something different, yet if the headwaiter does his duty even in a small house where there are but five or six waiters, it will be found that he does better for the guests and for the reputation of the house by remaining in the dining room to watch; to see who comes in and who goes; where they are seated and whether taken to seats reserved for them or somebody else; to watch tht wants of all the guests at all the tables and not go off on errands for a few.