The death of celebrated restaurateur Morris Martick late last year reminds us that the city is fast losing its character— or, more precisely, its characters. Even though Baltimore lost William Donald Schaefer— mayor, governor, comptroller and crank— in 2011 (and Schaefer was a colossus among eccentrics), the passing of Morris Martick was an especially melancholy milestone. Hard to imagine the Free State producing such citizens again. So when the bell tolls, it tolls inevitably for another Baltimore eccentric, a species more endangered than the blue crab.
Morris Martick’s encomiums were lively, loving and deserved. Some were even true. I cannot confirm whether or not he cooked au natural (as some claimed). Or perhaps it was in his underwear? Like so much American history, his story was rooted in fact and layered with fabrication, embellishment and outright lies. But it is not important if such things actually happened or if such words were actually spoken, because they should have been. I can say from 32 years of contact, a visit with Morris was an experience you will not have at the Rusty Scupper or McCormick & Schmick’s.
It was plain, on the cold Sunday in mid-January when some 200 or more friends turned out at the Charles Theater to mourn his passing, how loved Martick was. The service, if you want to call it that, was exactly like an evening at Martick’s. The festivities started late, ran on far too long and were wildly disorganized but heartfelt. They were exactly what you would expect from old beatniks, old hippies, old newspaper hacks and a couple of generations of MICA graduates. There was not a false note, although some of the instruments were out of tune.
There were moments of true hilarity, including a charming anecdote from a former waitress who accidentally poured a cup of coffee on a diner one night. When the diner made the fatal mistake of demanding to see Martick then upbraided him on her lack of experience, Martick did not miss a beat. He assured the disgruntled trencherman that this gal was no amateur. “She’s spilled coffee on hundreds of people.”
Going to Martick’s Restaurant Français (sic) was something everyone should have done at least once. Once was often sufficient. (If you believe that this was the best pâté in Christendom or the best bouillabaisse in the Free World then you really, really need to go to France.)
But that hardly matters. Martick was of Baltimore, as opposed to the late much-lamented Ron Smith (also called to glory in 2011), who may have been the sage of Shrewsbury, Pa., but chose not to live among us. The reaction to Smith’s passing seemed a bit excessive. You would have thought Voltaire had died. But, what of it? Brother Smith may now be seated at the right hand of the Father but he was not seated at 214 W. Mulberry St., in a former speak-easy. And that’s all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
I had the great pleasure of having lunch with Martick (he cooked) and the fabled Happy Eater of the Baltimore Sun, Rob Kasper, and Kasper’s son, Matt, a few years ago when the old man was closing up for good. (He had threatened to do this before.) I believe Martick was 83 or 84 at the time. He prepared sweetbreads. The temperature was a bracing 40 degrees in the darkened dining room. If there was any heat in the building I cannot attest to it. I dined in a peacoat and watch cap but removed my gloves, as it was easier to handle the cutlery. There were a couple of strange girls hovering about, young ladies of the MICA sort often found on the premises. Martick recruited directly from the ranks of the artistic, adding to the charm and the incompetence. I believe the ladies had been enjoying the potables. We had a wonderful lunch.
No one at the memorial service (at least while I was there) mentioned Martick’s good neighbor. Have they forgotten that, round the way from Martick’s, the late Abe Sherman kept his newsstand? Martick was Oscar of the Waldorf compared to Abe, who actually shouted at customers, cursed them and ordered them out. Most deserved it.
Sherman is long gone now and I think the old man who tapdanced in the bars in Fells Point is gone, too. Balls Maggio. Monroe Cornish. Melvin Perkins. Mr. Diz. Harley P. Brinsfield, the sandwich king/jazz impresario. Wee Willie Wentworth, the flagpole sitter. T. Oliver Hughes and his Collegians. Dantini, the Magnificent. And the guy who stood in front of The Sun building with his “Sun Lies/Sun Errs” sign. The pianist who played a portable keyboard and offered gospel classics to the multitudes at North and Calvert. The gent who ground up fresh horseradish and coconut at Lexington Market. You will not see such people again.
The free-spirited Dr. Bob Hieronimus, whom I believe would meet most standards for eccentricity and meet them gallantly, spoke affectionately of Martick at the memorial, observing, “Every year that goes by we lose a major part of Baltimore.”