A maid cafe is, as far as I can make out - and wikipedia confirms
- a cafe/light restaurant staffed by girls who dress up as anime characters or doll-like maid costumes. Chatting with customers is encouraged, so the atmosphere is more social than a regular cafe. Its also more expensive, and the food worse. (from what I can judge from the menus: its what my nine year old daughter might make if left alone in the kitchen...) They advertise by by having the staff stand around - in costume - on busy street corners nearby handing out small cards.
This is a phenomena that started about 5-6 years ago, or at least started to go mainstream then. Ground zero for maid cafes is the "nerd districts" where computers, comic books, and video games were sold: Akihabara in Tokyo, Nipponbashi in Osaka.
Growth appears to be exponential: every time I visit either region (I'm in Tokyo right now, staying near Akihabara) the number of maid cafes (and therefore maids on the street)...