MORRIS MARTICK might have been surprised when his family and friends threw a party celebrating his 80th birthday. But he was not at a loss for words.
"It is nice of you young folks to remember the birthday of an old buzzard," he said as he looked over the crowd of well-wishers, including many former employees, who gathered recently at the Creative Alliance on South Conkling Street. "But," he added as a slight grin crept over his face, "I am not dead yet."
Indeed, as the stories he and others told that night demonstrated, the artsy proprietor of one of Baltimore's quirkier restaurants, Martick's Chez Francais, is very much alive and is still "very Morris."
He had spent his actual birthday the day before cooking French fare for the handful of customers who had rung the doorbell and entered his well-camouflaged establishment on 214 W. Mulberry St. It is in a part of downtown Baltimore that, according to Morris, "is still waiting for the west-side renaissance." The restaurant building is also his home. He and his two brothers and two sisters were born on the second floor.
On his birthday, two kitchen workers had failed to show up at Martick's for duty, and unwashed dishes were piling up. When Doug Retzler, an artist and longtime customer, stopped by the restaurant to wish Morris well, he noticed that Morris needed help. Retzler summoned a few friends and washed dishes at the restaurant as a birthday gift.
Such tales of impending chaos and extreme loyalty were told many times at Morris' birthday gathering. Katie Brennan, for instance, said she quit four times in the years she worked with Morris. Mostly she cooked, she said, but at one point in her career Morris banned her from answering the telephone at the restaurant because she was too nice to customers.
Brennan seemed to summarize the experience of many Martick's alumni as she described the stages of her tempestuous relationship with the demanding restaurateur.
"At first I hated his guts," she said. "Then it became a challenge -- how far can I push him? Then you end up loving him."
According to his sister Rose, "Morris is a character, a Baltimore icon." Rose, who gives her age as "81 and three-quarters years old," is something of a character herself.
She brought a book to her brother's birthday party. The book, Those Years, was the memoir of R.H. Gardner, the former theater critic for The Sun and her frequent companion.
Rose pointed out a passage to me in the Gardner book that told of the time Morris created a sensation among the animal lovers of Baltimore by walking out in the middle of Mulberry Street to save a sickly pigeon from an oncoming truck.
Rose also showed me a yellowed newspaper clipping that recounted the time Morris took a dusty piece of cardboard from a Druid Hill garage, had it framed and submitted it to the Peale Museum. There it was displayed as a piece of "found art" and given a price tag of $100.
"Morris is creative," said Rose. "There just aren't very many people like him."
Rose also told me the family history in this town. Her parents, Harry and Florence, were immigrants from Poland who spoke mostly Yiddish. They raised their five children -- Sanford, Rose, Morris, Jeanette and Alexander -- on the second floor of the Mulberry Street building and ran a bar on the street level.
At times they sold groceries, and at times they sold liquor. Unfortunately, one of those times her father sold liquor was during Prohibition. He was caught by "revenuers" and had to go to prison for a year, Rose said.
Later Morris took over the family bar, and it became a free-spirited watering hole for artists, newspaper writers and musicians. It was one of the few establishments in Baltimore that welcomed gays. "It was very bohemian," said Raoul Middleman, a well-known Baltimore painter who was on hand for Morris' birthday celebration.
Recalling the Martick's scene of late 1950s and early '60s, he said, "On weeknights, all kinds of people gathered there to drink and talk about all kinds of ideas. Then on weekends we would all leave, so the people from the suburbs could come in and Morris could make some money," Middleman said.
Morris was one of the first Baltimore bar owners to display works by local artists, Middleman said. Now, he said, it is tradition.
In 1968, Morris closed the business and traveled to France, where he studied cooking. When he returned in 1970 he redecorated, covering the walls with snakeskin wallpaper and aircraft aluminum plates. Since then, he has been serving French fare for lunch and dinner, more or less every day except Sundays and Mondays.
The food, especially the pate, the bouillabaisse and the fresh fish, have pleased a number of professional eaters, myself among them. The service, depending on who showed up for work that day, has varied from very good to very slow, but always has been colorful.