At Martick's, quirkiness is a good recipe for success

December 07, 1997|By Rob Kasper

I AM A FAN OF Martick's Restaurant Francais. I like its French-style dishes, most cooked from scratch, and I like its inexpensive prices. I also recognize that Martick's is an acquired taste. It seems to specialize in inconvenience.

I suspect that one reason more people are not fans of the restaurant is that they have never be able to find it. Even when you know the address, 214 W. Mulberry St., it is easy to miss. It doesn't look like a restaurant. It looks more like a storage building attached to a two-story garage at the corner of Park Avenue and Mulberry Street. Parking is almost impossible. And the neighborhood, on the western edge of downtown, is not exactly where most folks want take a nighttime stroll.

The restaurant has no sign. You are supposed to know that you should stop at the striped door and ring the doorbell. The place used to be a bar until the late 1960s when, the story goes, Morris Martick closed the joint for a few years either because he wanted to go to France and cook, or because it was the only way he could clear the joint of the barflies, many of them newspapermen, who used to hang out there. Martick's picked up its "Francais" in 1970 when Morris returned from France and made the place a restaurant.

Usually, if you ring the bell, Morris will answer the door. He lives on the upper floors. Instead of saying, "Welcome," he is more likely to say, as he did to me recently, "Don't park across the street, you'll get towed."

Even its fans admit that the restaurant is quirky. The 70 folks who rang the bell on a recent rainy Friday night certainly knew what they were in for. They used to work there. They had come from as far away as California to pay tribute to their former boss. They were worried that Morris, who is 75 years old, might take action on his long-running threat to close the joint and retire. Instead of telling him they were throwing a party for him, they got someone Morris didn't know to rent the restaurant for a party. When the night of the party arrived, former waiters and cooks came through the door, greeting each other with hugs and salutations such as, "Bob, I worked here form '84 to '87." Morris, clad in his usual dark T-shirt, slacks and sneakers, and looking very fit, stood in the downstairs dining room, alternately looking happy and suspicious.

When someone offered him congratulations, Martick replied that anyone who was able to stay in business on West Mulberry Street should be congratulated.

I am a longtime patron, and once even ate upstairs, in the overflow dining room, a space that also served as a storage area. At the reunion of Martick's employees, I ate some of Morris' wonderful, creamy pate, and asked questions about the mystique of Martick's restaurant.

One question was how the restaurant got its provisions. Most restaurants have suppliers deliver goods to the restaurant, but Morris did not operate that way. Former employees told me about accompanying Morris on his twice-a-day shopping trips around town, once in the morning to get supplies for lunch, and once in the afternoon to get provisions for dinner. Jimmy Rouse, who would later run Louie's Bookstore and Cafe in downtown Baltimore, said that when he asked Morris why he didn't use restaurant supply houses, Morris replied, "Can't trust them."

Rouse told about traveling around town in Morris' dark green van, as they went from wholesalers in Fells Point to Central Avenue and then to Cross Street looking for bargains. Morris is a master, Rouse said, "of how to do things cheaply."

Having heard about these shrewd, if labor-intensive, buying practices, I was able to figure out how Morris was able to charge such low prices. It also explained why many items on Martick's menu often weren't available. If, for example, trout wasn't on sale at the market that morning, it wouldn't be served at Martick's that day.

I was curious about what it was like to work for Morris. Intense, replied most of his former employees. Brian Nippard, who during a 10-year period worked at a handful of restaurants in New York and Baltimore, described Martick's as "the most idiosyncratic" place he had experienced.

Nippard and other Martick's alumni recalled that Morris required them to sit in the restaurant at the end of the night and wait for him to recalculate, by hand, all the checks they had tallied during the evening. If, for example, Morris found evidence of a bottle of wine that a waiter had failed to add to a customer's bill, Morris dunned the waiter.

Rouse recalled, however, that Morris once lost some of his moral authority when Rouse discovered a box of credit-card vouchers that Morris had failed to send into the bank for payment. Such inconsistency, Rouse surmised, was part of life at Martick's.

Morris called his employees "boss." According to one former worker, Teddy Dickinson, "This made you feel like his equal." Another employee, however, told me he thought Morris called him boss because Morris couldn't remember his name.

Former employees told me it was difficult working with Morris, but they came back the other night to honor him. Martick accepted their kind words, and their ribbing, and watched as they went to work serving dinner.

"There I was, back in the kitchen making bouillabaisse," said Dickinson, a 51-year-old insurance investigator in Shrewsbury, Pa.

"The trick to making good bouillabaisse is having a good stock, then zapping the seafood right at the end," Dickinson said. "Morris taught me that."

When I spoke with Morris a few days after the shindig, he was his usual cryptic self.

When asked about the possibility of retirement, he said, "I'm thinking about it."

When asked about the shindig in his honor, he said, "They gave a party for me, and I did all the work."

And when asked what the future holds, he replied: "Anyone can run a restaurant with customers. I try running one without customers."

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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