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December 28, 2011

Baltimore’s Iconic Restaurateur Extraordinaire Passes

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Morris Martick, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, who ran the delightfully quirky Martick’s Restaurant Francais at 214 West Mulberry Street in Baltimore for almost 40 years, passed away December 16.


The mere mention of Mr. Martick, 88, a Baltimore icon and institution, brought back memories of many wonderful visits over the decades to his zany restaurant until it closed in August 2008.


One of the better descriptions of Mr. Martick, among many, came from Baltimore Sun writer, Rob Hiaasen, in a wonderful article dated May 17, 2006. “Morris Martick … 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.”


Mr. Martick’s French restaurant was located in the house where he was born. At the time his parents ran a little neighborhood grocery store out of the building, err, house that is…


According to a tribute written by Jacques Kelly, for The Baltimore Sun on December 16, “His parents, who came to Baltimore from Pennsylvania in 1917, operated a grocery store. When liquor sales became illegal during Prohibition, they ran a speakeasy. Mr. Martick said in a 1973 Sun profile that ‘they hid the liquor in the bathroom.’ After repeal in 1933, they obtained a liquor license and opened the bar.”


After attending City College, Mr. Martick “ran the place as a bar with family members from the 1940s until 1967 — and served bar fare such as hamburgers and Reuben sandwiches,” Mr. Kelly wrote.


“He re-opened the establishment in 1970 and ran it through August 2008. Mr. Martick wrote his own menus and changed them every three months,” according to Mr. Kelly.


Even when it was “Martick’s Bar,” the place was unique and attracted a colorful clientele, such as John Goodspeed, the former Evening Sun columnist (1950 to 1967), of whom Mr. Kelly also wrote a fitting tribute September 12, 2006.


It was oddly by way of Mr. Goodspeed’s “weekday column (that he took over from Jacob Hay,) that appeared under a sketch of the Baltimore skyline,” “Mr. Peep’s Diary,” which “chronicled the city, its habits and people…” that I first rediscovered Martick’s in the 1970s.


For those who are too young to remember Mr. Goodspeed, he “collected examples of the city's linguistic train wrecks and christened the mispronunciations Baltimorese…”


Although I was a “Morning Sun” reader, I often would seek-out a copy of the Evening Sun for the specific purpose of reading Mr. Goodspeed’s columns.


So, while roaming the streets of Baltimore very late one night with a gaggle of artist-friends, we were referred to a “quirky French restaurant,” by the name of Martick’s. Recalling Mr. Goodspeed’s column, I jumped at the chance to go to Martick’s for a bite to eat – thinking it was still a bar.


We arrived at a non-descript, if not run-down looking house, beside a parking garage with a locked blue door and no indication whatsoever that it was a restaurant. I immediately assumed that it was one of the several unadvertised after-hours speakeasy bars that were once quite popular in Baltimore.


Once we figured-out the secret doorbell, the door opened to a dark interior with a precarious set of steps which led you past peeling paint to an equally dark bohemian dining area on the second floor, with mismatched furniture, silverware, and dishes. It reminded one of a restaurant scene from a Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie in postwar Paris.


Mr. Kelly quoted a former customer who appropriately described that “Martick's was shabby chic before that term was around…”


Mr. Martick greeted us as if we were long lost friends – even before I explained the Mr. Goodspeed connection. Understand that although I had on my characteristic coat and tie, I arrived with my hair in a ponytail down to my waist with a group of friends who reminded people of a cross between the Village People’s 1978 anthem, “YMCA” and TV’s “Mod Squad” (1968-1973).


We were delighted to find a new culinary home where we were welcome – and I was hooked on the culinary experience.


The food was extraordinarily delicious and the ambiance, mystifyingly intriguing. Although, according to Mr. Kelly, Martick’s was known “for his sweet potato soup and bouillabaisse…,” it was the beef Bourguignon and the rockfish, in addition to the bouillabaisse, that were my favorites.


According to Mr. Hiaasen’s article in 2006, “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’ …


“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.”


Well, finding another delightfully delicious dining experience, run by such a loveable eccentric like Martick’s, is what is now hopeless. Mr. Martick now takes his place among the legendary characters that were once the Baltimore we loved.


… I’m just saying


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