Morris Martick, the colorful restaurateur who ran a Baltimore landmark for nearly four decades, died of lung cancer early Friday at Union Memorial Hospital. He was 88.
Friends said he collapsed while walking on Howard Street last month. He had continued to reside at 214 W. Mulberry St., where he was born and his parents had a grocery store that he later turned into his French restaurant
Known for his sweet potato soup and bouillabaisse, he charmed regular customers in a bohemian atmosphere at what he named Martick's Restaurant Francais. He kept the front door locked and patrons knew to buzz their way in before ordering his beef Bourguignon, mussels with cream and tomatoes, duck with Bing cherries, scallops, rockfish and veal. Some finished it off with profiteroles for dessert.
John Dorsey, The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic, said in 1975, "Martick's, I know, is a law unto itself." A decade later, Mr. Martick told him, "The only thing I've never done is make a lot of money."
His tables were covered with gingham. The silver and dishes were mismatched.
When he gave up his highly personal business in 2008, Mr. Martick said, "I don't like the grind. It takes 13 to 14 hours a day to run this place — I make all my own stocks, do all my own shopping — and I make maybe $5 an hour."
He was born on the second floor of his parents' grocery store and attended City College. He ran the place as a bar with family members from the 1940s until 1967 — and served bar fare such as hamburgers and Reuben sandwiches. He then closed the bar and went to a small country restaurant in Pacy-sur-Eure, France, where he absorbed French cooking.
"They had a trout stream and served fresh-caught fish," said Paul Bartlett, who worked with Mr. Martick in the 1970s and is writing a cookbook with Mr. Martick's recipes. "When he opened his restaurant, he had a fish tank. The remains are still up in the attic."
He reopened the establishment in 1970 and ran it through August 2008.
Mr. Martick wrote his own menus and changed them every three months.
"He was always value-priced," Mr. Bartlett said.
"Morris was a very practical man," Mr. Bartlett said. "He had developed a sense of culinary acumen and had an understanding of flavors. He served dinners five days a week until he was 85."
"He made the best country pate this side of Paris," said Pat Moran, the casting agent who lives in Mount Vernon and was a patron for many years.
Friends said the pate was country-style, chicken liver with brandy and sherry and pork, wrapped in bacon. It was served with crackers and little pickles.
"Martick's was shabby chic before that term was around," said Jacqueline Lampell, a customer who lives in Catonsville. "It was just fun to be there. The lights were dim, and that was probably a good idea. It was bohemian, and the food was reliable and fresh and good, too."
A 2006 Sun profile said, "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."
Mr. Martick ran his quirky restaurant under what some would have considered unlikely conditions. He shopped for ingredients in a red Ford pickup. He hauled his ingredients up a staircase to a second-floor kitchen. He took reservations on an old rotary-dial phone.
In 2006, a reporter asked him to characterize his patrons. "You have your newspaper people, teachers, lawyers and law students, professors, artist types and maybe the rare tourist who come in," he said. "And they usually want to meet the chef."
Mr. Martick was the son of Polish Jewish immigrants.
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, "They hid the liquor in the bathroom."
After repeal in 1933, they obtained a liquor license and opened the bar.
"Through the years, the bar has ushered in the rough, the gay, the musical, the curious," The Sun's 1973 profile said. "Morris Martick was always a few steps ahead of Baltimore. His place was a tiny isle of Bohemia set in a conservative city."
Plans for a memorial service were incomplete.
Survivors include a brother, Alexander Martick, and a sister, Rose Martick, both of Baltimore.
Baltimore Sun reporter Richard Gorelick contributed to this article.