The Atypical Chef

For 35 years, cranky perfectionist Morris Martick has served fine French food in a very dark restaurant on the west side of Baltimore. Somehow, it works.


Morris Martick and his French restaurant have survived by playing a little trick on themselves. Martick pretends he's no kind of businessman and Martick's Restaurant Francais pretends it's no kind of business.

Building and man made a pact 35 years ago, when Morris converted his speakeasy on Mulberry Street in West Baltimore into an improbable French restaurant. Together, they would survive out of stubbornness and a mutual sense of purpose. That, and the man still makes a nice sweet potato soup.

Martick's story long has been part of Baltimore's quirky narrative. Several years back, the talk was his restaurant - and home - might be in jeopardy because of the city's $350 million west-side redevelopment plan. But any eviction talk has since died down. The building at 214 Mulberry St. so far has survived urban renewal. "I consider Martick's an institution, and as long as he is running his restaurant, the city would not move to take that property," says M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.

When virtually anyone else would have left the unforgiving restaurant business, Martick has stayed put. You still have to ring the doorbell and take your chances Martick - the owner, host, chef and sometime waiter - will answer. The mail slot now serves as the old peephole.

He's been called eccentric, but prefers "atypical." He calls people boss and they call him boss back. At 83, Martick has talked to enough reporters to have his own line of lines: I'm a dying legend. I should be retired. It's hopeless here. Martick is not an easy man; he's a cranky perfectionist who pretends not to care about his "hopeless" restaurant.

He cares.

Why else make the daily shopping trips by red Ford pickup, haul the groceries (industrial-size cans of tomatoes - heavy suckers) up his leaning stairs to his second-floor kitchen? Or why else buy new candles for the tables in his dark, catacombed first-floor restaurant with aircraft aluminum siding? Why all that work? Well, to still serve his "Sweet Potato Soup --World's Best" and "Kobe Steak Massaged By Geisha's," as the handwritten menu still reads. Along with purpose, the man also has humor - somewhere under that Cousteauvian cap. "He's very demanding and set in his ways," says his waiter, Martin Cross, "but he's a total sweetheart."

So, come again to Martick's Restaurant Francais, where outside the street banners say "The West Has Zest!" and where barbershops surround the old restaurant and where an unappetizing parking garage leached onto it years ago.

Ring the doorbell - and hope the cook answers. He's preparing for a big night on Thursday: 22 people from a French club! He'll probably introduce himself as Maurice. Maurice sounds better, as he says.

Let's get off Mulberry Street and go inside Martick's because, seriously, it won't be here forever.

Prep work

Morris Martick - son of Polish Jewish immigrants, lifelong bachelor, former Sunday pilot, former oyster boat owner, 1966 candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates, art patron, self-taught cook, self-taught self - is eating cornflakes in his own restaurant.

The black rotary rings - telemarketers again. What could Martick possibly buy that isn't groceries? For the hundredth time that day, he hikes up to his kitchen. One floor up, Martick came into this world more than eight decades ago, a time when new parents bartered with doctors. "No cash. My mom paid two bags of coal and 1 pound of sugar." The boy was given no middle name - maybe that would have cost more.

Today, Martick's is characteristically dark, chilled and empty at lunchtime. "I haven't solved the first problem of running a restaurant," says the man who has run one for so long.

Which is?

"You're asking the wrong person."

Martick can only guess at the number of his customers - maybe 30 to 50 a week. "You have your newspaper people, teachers, lawyers and law students, professors, artist types and maybe the rare tourist who come in," he says. "And they usually want to meet the chef. They ask me what I recommend. I tell them I recommend another restaurant. You can put that in because it's a good line."

It's time for his grocery run. No one delivers because he buys so little, so Martick will drive to his produce man on North Avenue and to his baker on Saratoga Street, among other stops. The Ford suits him. He once drove a Jaguar and then a convertible Mercedes. "I found out fancy cars don't change your life. You're still a bum."

Before heading out, he calls Sal on the black rotary. Sal is Salvatore Maranto of F & S Maranto, a family-run bakery since 1914. Martick says a reporter is tagging along. "Why? Because you're part of my life," Martick tells Maranto. Martick has no family of his own and his regular suppliers, irregular customers and young wait staff have served as his family - and foil sometimes.

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