Knowing One's Station
What does it mean to be the hostess with the mostest?
It's Sunday morning and it's time to go to the church of brunch. We've arrived at an Eastside breakfast joint ready to tuck into some crab cakes Benedict and grapefruit mimosas, hungry and in high spirits. We approach the host stand and receive a less-than-enthusiastic greeting from the young woman behind it. It's hard to tell whether it's diffidence or poorly concealed hostility, but it's certainly not hospitable.
We're not the only ones who notice, either. After we've placed our order with our quite friendly and capable server, another couple sits down at the small two-top to our right. The woman is laughing and shaking her head in disbelief. She throws a glance over her shoulder at the hostess' departing back and says to her companion, "She clearly doesn't want to be here."
Front-of-house staff in Austin have a bit of a reputation for being slackers, perhaps the result of having a significant creative class. The fella who's serving you your migas is just doing so to keep the lights on while he pursues his real dream of signing a major-label deal (do those still exist?) or developing the next hot dating app. While servers are generally the prime suspects, host staff don't come off scot-free, either. A highly unscientific poll conducted via social media suggests that diners describe hostesses as frequently being dismissive or snooty, when their expectation is that they should be warm and welcoming.
This is not a problem specific to Austin, but Austin diners don't have to look too far to find hosts who are curt, unfriendly, or generally unprofessional. There are plenty of warm, courteous, and polished host staff out there, and they should all be paid more. But an unpleasant encounter at the host stand can set the tone for the whole dining experience. When you add gender and power dynamics into the matrix, the host stand becomes the site of incredibly fraught exchanges.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dining out as leisure was a pastime of the upper classes. Well-heeled men and women would dine out in grand European-style hotels, like the Driskill, with a debonair maître d' (it's almost always a man; the female maître d' is a rare creature indeed) functioning as the host and captain of the dining room. His job would be to select wines, avert or defuse service crises, and, above all else, ensure a luxurious, customized dining experience for his wealthy guests.
As more Americans embraced restaurant dining in the years following World War II, the maître d' transformed in the cultural imagination to a snobbish gatekeeper – the stock character John Hughes gives comeuppance by snookering him into thinking he's serving Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago. Fast-forward to the 21st century and the chef is the star of the show; the front of the house is merely a vector for transmission of his (it's almost always a man) culinary genius.
A good hostess (the position almost always requires a suffix) should be invisible. More to the point, no diner should ever have any reason to discuss a hostess after an interaction, whether she's rude or disabled or dressed for more salacious employment. "A host is the first impression that one gets of the restaurant," says Jessica DeShan Timmons, proprietor of the Redneck Country Club in Stafford. "It's important that they are welcoming, approachable, and attractive. The only remarks I want folks to make about the hosts at my place are how they felt at home because of the greeting they received. I would also venture to say that this doesn't apply to only hosts. It applies to the entire team, men included." The hostess is the first point of contact, and she should smoothly pass the baton to the server to ensure continued good service. But it's a complicated job, one that requires a diverse skill set.
"It's a very complicated job," says a hostess at Uchiko. Dinner traffic is somewhat slow, and we're chatting while I purchase a gift card. "You have to have good communication skills with guests and staff, be organized, friendly, and professional. We're also the reservationists, which means you have to be really clear with people over the phone."
Lindsey McCalmont, operations director for the ELM Group (24 Diner, Easy Tiger, Arro, Italic), agrees. "You have to recognize the importance of that station. They determine the flow of everything else that happens. They have to time the seating appropriately, which affects the server and affects the kitchen. They're taking phone calls – inquiries, reservations, to-go orders. Guests calling from home need to have the same experience that they would if they were here."
At the same time, the host stand is often the most treacherous position. Customers are angry and demanding, or assume that the young woman (it's almost always a young woman) assisting them is too stupid to realize that their name isn't really Robert Oppenheimer. Hope Ewing, a writer and bartender from Los Angeles says, "Hosting is one of the trickiest jobs to do well, requiring so much tact and level-headedness, and the one most frequently occupied by entry-level workers. In so many cases, the ones behind the host stand are the least experienced, and it makes me squirm when other diners are less than understanding."
And that's where gender comes in. In season one of Sex and the City, we see the cultural pivot from the uptight maître d' to the now-stereotypical hot model-hostess who won't give Carrie and Samantha the time of day at fictional restaurant Balzac. Samantha muses – after threatening to snap the hostess in half – that if the host was a man, they wouldn't be kept waiting for a table. Instead it would be a sexually charged exchange, a mutual acknowledgment and transmission of power. The hostess in certain dining echelons is eye-candy at the door signaling entrance into privileged – and powerful – company.
This dynamic is underscored in the (blessedly) now-defunct Esquire magazine "Hostess of the Week" series that ran from about 2007-11. The series, which featured nubile young women photographed in borderline soft-core poses, capitalizes on that cultural turn from the officious maître d' to the bombshell gatekeeper. In 2011, the magazine featured an interview with Hannah Mary Marshall, who was employed at Congress as a hostess at the time, complete with a photograph of her snuggling chickens.
The feminist gut response to this kind of objectification is outrage and revulsion, naturally, but personal circumspection is also in order. I've had to check my own attitudes about hostesses, particularly when I judge them for their attire. I specifically called out "droopy tube tops" in my review of Olive & June, and was mildly outraged by the hostesses at St. Philip, whose shabby attire clashed with the waitstaff's crisp, coordinated gingham shirts and tidy jeans. What's at stake for me, the diner, if the hostess has a large hole in her dress, beyond a judgmental sense of superiority and manufactured outrage over my Mother's Day brunch? Especially if the young woman in question has done her job effectively and politely?
And do we judge male hosts this harshly? Do they get a pass because they aren't as widely represented in this particular station? McCalmont says, "Warmth and hospitality is just not negotiable. You have to be happy to see me because I'm a patron in this restaurant. That's our ultimate job, to be welcoming and warm." By this logic, hospitality shouldn't have a gender – even if the hospitality industry hasn't quite caught up.
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org