THEY ARE always men. They are always French. They only have one name. And they can humiliate you in ways you never dreamed possible. With a smooth sweep of the hand they can relegate you to the table just shy of the kitchen door. With a cool, unrecognizing gaze they can turn your power lunch into a debacle.

There are probably few people as immediately impressive as the first-class maitre d'. His accent, his courtesy, his unflappable calm, make him the paradigm of culture and refinement. In Washington, it is axiomatic that the maitre d' can make or break a restaurant, let alone a customer's ego. And, as any restaurateur will tell you, this power is completely deserved. Being a maitre d' is a profession, an art, a calling. As one local restaurant owner says, "A maitre d' doesn't become a maitre d', he is born." Going for the Dough

"Maitre d's have big glamor," says Enzo de Chiara, owner of Romeo and Juliet on K Street. "The house would pay $50,000 for a first-class maitre d' here, but you have to count that he can make just as much on tips."

$100,000. Not a bad yearly income, especially for someone who may never have graduated from high school, who entered his profession at 14 and whose first big responsibility consisted of brushing the crumbs off a linen tablecloth.

Ask a maitre d' how much he or his colleagues make in a year, and he smiles and says something self-deprecating about how a good waiter in a first-class restaurant can make as much as the maitre d'. Then, after several light, joking sentences, he changes the subject, as if to suggest money is just not something you discuss.

Martin, maitre d' at The Jockey Club at the Ritz-Carlton, fingers the heavy silverware on the table while he talks, straightening the fork, moving the spoon a millimeter to the right. "In five years maybe we will get to six figures for salary," he says, but smiles like a man contemplating a foolish dream. "There was a rumor that an owner in New York was paying his maitre d' that much. I wish it was true here. I probably would be smiling much more. It's just beyond the limits for Washington."

But no one disputes that maitre d's can do quite nicely here. And the salaries, whether in the high five figures as several maitre d's and managers suggest, or the low six figures, as several others claim, do not seem excessive to those who know the business from the inside.

"When you start a restaurant for new," Martin says, "the maitre d' either makes it or breaks it."

And to the suggestion that the work is easy, that the salaries may be a little high for a job that seems to require little more than the ability to stand at the door and smile, no maitre d' will respond without a controlled, but clear, rise in pitch.

"Maybe we are not smart enough to understand the stars or space or computers," says Emanuel Anagnostiadis, maitre d' at the Fourways on 20th Street, "but we are trained to know how to do everything right: the manners, the etiquette, the politeness.

"A maitre d' needs intelligence, alertness, politeness, memory. And he has to be a very good politician. Mysteries, gossip, you can hear everything. You have to know when to talk. Like a monkey, you know--don't see, don't hear, don't speak. As much as they make, they are worth it." The Perfect Maitre D'

And then there's the late Paul DeLisle, the paragon of maitre d's. DeLisle started his Washington career in the early '50s at Rive Gauche. When he moved to the now-defunct Sans Souci he became the symbol of the restaurant and the model of what a Washington maitre d' should be. Art Buchwald, a Sans Souci devotee, referred to him frequently in his column. Many of the most well-known maitre d's in town trained under him, and the eyes of restaurateurs around town still fill with tears when they speak of his death last year.

"Paul was a great man," says Jean Dasaretto, co-owner of Cantina d'Italia, "he really was. He had political savvy. He knew his Washington and he knew it well. Of course, Art Buchwald helped Paul with all the coverage he gave him in his column. He became part of the mythology of Washington." The Four Cs

"There, he's looking around," Rose Narva says and gazes approvingly at Francois Vetrie, maitre d' of the John Hay Room in the Hay-Adams dining room. "He should be aware of the room at all times, never turn his back. You saw, even when he was taking our order he stood at an angle so he could see around the room."

Narva, president of the Murdock Hotel Corp., which recently bought the Hay-Adams Hotel, arrived there barely three months ago from The Jefferson, and is now in the process of finding a second maitre d' to relieve the overworked Francois at lunch and breakfast. Now, before she begins her definition of the perfect maitre d', she glances down at the detailed notes she prepared earlier in the day. She checks the notes frequently to make sure she doesn't miss an item.

"I give The Four Cs," she says in a voice that flows as smoothly as cream from a silver pitcher. "Calmness. Confidence--which he must express as the customer appears. Classic in appearance--you know who he is when you enter the room. Control--he is in control. Control . . . and caring. Well, there are really more than four Cs. Caring. Concern. The Six Cs." Maitre D' Woes

At 4 p.m., the man settles into a banquette at Dominique's with a look of slightly wearied expectation. Busboys and waitresses rush by, setting up tables, dashing to the phone to take reservations for dinner. He asks for a menu, but he asks quietly, and no one seems to notice the one sitting figure in the entire restaurant. No one except Diana Damewood, the hostess.

"I'm sorry, sir. We don't open for another hour."

"I know." He sits solidly, insistently, as if physically attached to the banquette.

"So we can't serve you dinner yet."

"That's all right."

"It will be quite a wait until we do open."

"That's all right."

With a slightly perplexed look on her face, Diana studies the man for a moment; then her voice flows into the soothing tone perfected by maitre d's and hostesses and mothers.

"Why don't you come into the bar, sir? You'll be much more comfortable, and we'll tell you as soon as you can order your meal. I'll show you in."

The man follows Diana into the bar. Another customer satisfied. What It Takes

"There are many kinds of maitre d's," says Mel Krupin, owner of the Connecticut Avenue restaurant that bears his name. "The kissing kind--they kiss your hand. The ones that bow. The kind with the rope--they won't let you pass the rope without a little money passing hands. Then there are the ones who are more down to earth. They kid with people, joke, like I do. In Washington people say you're not really famous if you don't get an insult from Mel Krupin."

But however many different kinds of maitre d's actually exist, the distinguished Frenchman remains the stereotype. And the road to becoming a distinguished French maitre d' is a long one. In Europe, potential maitre d's often train at a restaurant school before even becoming waiters, and they will spend decades rising up through the ranks of a first-class restaurant.

"In Paris, there is not a maitre d' under 50 years old," says Michel Burkle, maitre d' at Place Vendome in Georgetown. "The classic maitre d's, they're 45, 50, 55, 60 years old. But the race doesn't die off. A young man in the business is 45 years old. In certain restaurants in France, it's like the Kremlin. You know, there are young men of 45 or 50 or so waiting to take over." Maitre D' Wars

But some maitre d's do not just stand and wait for their chance to enter the big time. They take action: They defect to a rival restaurant.

Maitre d' defection is a delicate question. No one in the business likes to imply they are denying maitre d's the right to advance themselves, but the loss of a popular maitre d' can destroy a restaurant.

"When you're a great maitre d'," says Burkle, "at least one or two times the clientele will try to see you, and then you can draw those people into your new restaurant."

Paul DeLisle's departure from the Sans Souci after a dispute with the management is a classic example of what can happen when a first-class maitre d' defects. Most local restaurateurs agree that after DeLisle left, the restaurant was doomed.

"When he left the Sans Souci, the whole thing was a debacle," says Mo Sussman, who owns Joe and Mo's. "He was that restaurant."

"There's not really stealing," he continues, "but, well, if I was going to open a restaurant in another town, I would go around to the restaurants in the town and ask who was the best maitre d' in town, and then I'd go after him. That would be my number-one priority." The Maitre D' Bible

Emanuel doesn't fool around. Every Saturday he holds a training session for his waiters and busboys. The reading list for this continuing education? A document Emanuel has taken with him from restaurant to restaurant: Emanuel's Manual.

The material includes the strict demand that all guests be asked if they want a cocktail within 15 seconds of being seated. 15 seconds. Other excerpts:

"If the host selects a bottle of wine, he should be complimented on his excellent choice by saying to him, 'That's a very fine wine and a very excellect choice, sir.'

"It should go without saying that ladies should be served first, exceptions being heads of state (kings, princes, presidents) and heads of religion (pope, patriarch, archbishop)."

The manual deals with all the familiar banes of a maitre d's existence: "The Hurried Guest," "The Overfamiliar Guest," "The Troublemaker." The manual also offers advice that an outsider can scarcely appreciate. "Don't Throw Silver," it says. The questions such an injunction raises are probably better left unasked. The Tip

A problem with your table? The perfect maitre d' will never imply you're not important enough to rate a prime spot. The waiter spilled the consomme' on your lap? The maitre d' will immediately assume the cleaning bill. And all of this without a raised voice, an angry look or a sign of human frailty. But ask a maitre d' about tips and out comes a flood of moral outrage. Every field has its philosophical debate, and in the restaurant business, this is it.

"I never took a penny at the door and I never will," says Jean Michel Farrat, owner and maitre d' at Jean Pierre on K Street. "If I see someone at the door selling a table--and I call it selling--I am going to blow through the ceiling. I remember when I first worked in New York. The tips at the time were just bribes to get a good table, they were nothing more. The tips I would get there had nothing to do with what I knew how to do--flambe', carving a duck. It was people saying, 'Hey, can I get a table faster than him?' "

Dominique D'Ermo, owner of the restaurant that bears his name, remembers a maitre d' he hired just after he opened his restaurant. When the night ended, Dominique found his employe by the bar, hitting his fist against the surface and yelling, "Only five dollars! That guy only gave me a five-dollar tip!"

"And this was when I was just starting out," Dominique says, "and I was lucky to be getting any customers at all, forget about the maitre d's tip. After that I revised all my thoughts about maitre d's."

Whether or not they themselves accept tips, most maitre d's agree that Washington is not in the same league for tips as New York or Los Angeles and that Paris is in another league all together. And then there's Las Vegas, where maitre d's have apparently lost that most important of all maitre d' skills: subtlety.

"You go to Las Vegas, that's the only place I know where they look at the money before they seat you to see if it's enough," says Krupin. "If it's not enough, you walk right past the stage and you keep walking. You got to stop and slip them a few more dollars if you want a better seat." The Invasion

Maitre d's, and especially the maitre d's with the graying hair, accents and tuxedos, are a nostalgic bunch. Service isn't what it used to be. Expectations have dropped. The profession is changing. And there is one change some of them greet with exceptionally determined disapproval: The Dreaded Appearance of Women in the Ranks.

"They are not maitre d's. They call them hostesses," says Emanuel of The Fourways. "They can be nice looking. They can be what you call elegant. Fine at the door, but after that . . . They can't take the pressure. Because in our business, you find 100,000 crises in one day. If you don't have the proper training you get excited. The men, they make what you call compliments to the ladies, and the lady forgets. She gets so involved in the conversation, in the nice things the man is saying, and she forgets the rest of the room. A man keeps his eyes moving, he doesn't forget. I don't think a female can do it yet."

The Jockey Club's Martin begins a little more delicately.

"Being a Frenchman, being trained by professionals and old people . . ." he falters, fumbles with his silverware, continues. "In a first-class restaurant--you go to Maxim's in Paris--I don't see a woman maitre d' at the door. I don't see a hostess at the Jockey Club door. A hostess would not be appropriate. It's just not the place of a lady at the door.

"It's an old tradition," Martin says. "It's like in a kitchen, it's a chef. When you walk into the kitchen, you find out it's a man with a red nose and fat belly. Strong voices and solid men--it's what you expect. People call the Jockey Club and ask for the maitre d', not the hostess, even if they've never been here and don't know it's a man and not a woman."

"Hostesses" are certainly no longer shocking to most customers, but Dominque's hostess Diana Damewood has noticed that some customers are a little surprised when they see who is asking them, "Do you have a reservation?"

"Europeans say, 'You can't be the maitre d'. First of all, you're a woman, and second of all, you don't speak French,' " Diana says. "I say, 'Yes, sir, that's true, but if you want a table you'll have to deal with me.' If you're the only one there and you're the one who's smiling, they have to get used to you." The Future

But more than the sex of maitre d's is changing. The entire species may be doomed, at least according to some restaurateurs around town.

"I don't think there are any maitre d's left," says Joe and Mo's Sussman. "The word maitre d' is almost an anachronism. The old-style maitre d' who knew the VIPs and kowtowed to them, with him the regular folks always felt uncomfortable. A true maitre d' is a guy who knows French service, table service, and I don't think there's been an Americanization of that maitre d'. As a word, it's useful, and if someone asks me, 'Are you the maitre d'?' I'll say yes, because it's easier, but it's really an anachronism. I generally call him, 'the man at the door.' "

"The old-fashioned maitre d' is dying because he killed the business by hassling the customer," says Dominique. "You may retain some of the snobs who want a special table, but those aren't the kind of customers you want. They don't spend money. They sit over a cup of coffee all night. And some maitre d's get a percentage of the waiter's tips. That can ruin your business, and owners are chasing those kinds of maitre d's out of the business."

"You mean the maitre d's like in the movies?" asks Paul, maitre d' at Lion D'Or. "I never liked that strict sort--it cannot make the customer comfortable. It makes them feel the distance."

But Enzo de Chiara has been looking for a maitre d' since he opened Romeo and Juliet seven years ago. He hasn't found anyone to fill the position so he assumes the duties himself. It is not his idea of the perfect solution. "I am not a maitre d', but I know what a maitre d' should be," he says.

The changes in the profession, along with the general lack of training and inspiration among American maitre d's, has left him with an attitude of resigned pessimism.

"What you find is either a compromise or a disaster," he says. "I have not known yet a perfection in this job in Washington. I have tried several and never been satisfied, not even with my own brother. So far, in seven years, big talks, but no results."

Like many maitre d's trained in France, Jean Michel remembers a different breed of professionals, like the maitre d's who forbade their waiters from wearing watches or rings, "because you could not show the customer that you had a watch that cost more than his."

"Now, unfortunately we are not working with waiters who are . . ." he pauses, and, maitre d' that he is, rephrases his thoughts more diplomatically. "Some of us have been trained, others are not professional. There are things they do not know and will never know."

"More and more, what we called the old maitre d's, the ones I knew in France, are disappearing," says George Torchio, maitre d' at Maison Blanche. "I remember before lunch and dinner we had to line up, show the nails, the maitre d' was looking for the collar of the shirt. You cannot have the same now. You see the young people now, the way they grow up, they want to make life the way they want it. In a restaurant it is necessary to have discipline or else it doesn't work, but you must be more flexible than they had to be years ago. I wouldn't be able to work here the way Paul DeLisle managed the Sans Souci."

"Really," Mo Sussman says, "Paul DeLisle was the last maitre d' on Earth," Sussman pauses, and smiles at his phrasing. "That sounds pretty good, doesn't it?"