Fernando Peire had just joined the Ivy as maître d' in 1990 when a man telephoned wanting to dine at 10:30 p.m. the next day.
"My instinct was to take the reservation: He had the most elegant voice I had ever heard," says Peire, 56. "But I was new, and the general manager was standing in front of me shaking his head."
Peire offered the caller a table in the bar, with a promise that he would do everything possible to find space in the dining room on the night.
"This is Sir Alec Guinness," said the Academy Award winning actor, best known as Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. "I have never taken dinner in a bar in my life and I don't intend to break that rule tomorrow. I shall dine elsewhere."
So much attention is devoted to chefs nowadays, it is easy to forget that in a fashionable restaurant, the maître d' generally decides whether you get a table, at what time, and where you sit. In many ways, he is more important than the chef, a fact that used to be widely recognized.
"To have a famous maître d’hôtel greet you respectfully by your surname, to greet him in turn familiarly is a strong tonic for your ego,” Vogue said in 1936. The magazine is quoted on the website of Quaglino's, which itself was founded by a maître d', Giovanni Quaglino.
A good maître d' will make an instant assessment of how much effort to make to accommodate you when tables are as prized as tickets for the Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Just ask three of the leaders at London dining rooms: Peire of the Ivy, Jesus Adorno of Le Caprice and Silvano Giraldin of Le Gavroche. Elena Salvoni of L'Etoile, the best-known woman maître d', died this week after a short illness. She was 95.
"The maître d' is like the host of a party," says Gibraltar-born Peire, who is a director of the Ivy and known for his TV appearances as The Restaurant Inspector. "You have got to decide on the evening who feels, looks and sounds like they are going to fit in with the party. If they don't, and you can afford to turn them away, you turn them away.
"People always think there are secrets about how to get a good table, but no. You need to look pleased to be there. You need to give a good impression. You listen to what people have to say. You ask the right questions. You dress appropriately. Don't overdress. Be friendly. It always helps if you talk to staff. There are regular customers at the Ivy only because they are charming to the staff.