A Half-Empty Glass
A Local Culinary Legend Remembers The Bad Times
Morris "Mo" Martick, the 85-year-old chef and owner of Martick's Restaurant Français, is an existentialist. He has run an often-empty, little-known French restaurant in a nondescript blue building on the corner of Mulberry and Tyson streets, for 38 years, but steadfastly refuses to advertise. He says he lacks business skills but has never seen fit to learn them. He cooks for a living but doesn't even like it. And he says, during lunch on a recent chilly January afternoon, "There's no such thing as a chef."
Martick was born on the second story of the building that houses his restaurant in 1923, when it was a grocery owned by his bootlegger parents. He converted it into a restaurant in 1970, and according to Martick, save for a brief period when it was the bar that Sun editors frequented after putting the morning edition to bed, his restaurant has seen very little patronage. It has, like its chef, mostly just existed.
"Anybody can open up a restaurant, but staying in business, that's the trick," he says. "You have to live with poverty. You have to accept it. It's a way of life. I have the lowest living standard you can imagine."
The inside of the restaurant, eerily quiet and spotlessly clean, is quite handsome, from its mahogany bar stocked with old-school liquors--Cinzano and Pimm's--to its checkerboard floor and glass mosaic windows and lampshades.
Martick himself, wearing a Jacques Cousteau-like knit cap and a ratty sweater, is a nervous old man. He shuffles as he talks, he refuses to sit down, and occasionally his quiet voice rises with what sounds like irritation. "I don't enjoy running a restaurant," he says. "I have to do it. I've never had a job my whole life and, basically, I'm unemployable."
The restaurant didn't always paint such a sad picture. Martick's has long been a Baltimore institution, as quirky and slow to change as the city itself. The food has become uneven at best in recent years, but for decades Martick's churned out damn fine French food at surprisingly reasonable prices and without a trace of snootiness. His pâté and bouillabaisse were once sacrosanct. And, though Martick himself seems to have forgotten, there were nights in the '80s and '90s when the place was packed with appreciative diners.
Now, it's a curious restaurant run by a morose character, and talking to him, it seems Mo Martick has been wronged, over and over again, throughout his life. He says he took over cooking duties from a drunken French chef who attacked him with a steak knife a few months after the restaurant's miserable opening reviews were published. He's a lifelong bachelor. He can barely afford a regular staff.
"You ask Mr. Hillary why he climbed [Mount Everest]," he says. "That's me." Martick continues to cook homemade pâté and bouillabaisse because it's there.
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