Ask anyone who knew him to briefly describe Michael Morse, owner of the former Cafe Un Deux Trois in downtown Minneapolis, and the response seldom wavers.
"He was the ultimate character," said Jim Smart, owner of Smart Associates, a Minneapolis interior design firm. Smart's friendship with Morse was sparked in the early 1990s, when Morse was launching Cafe Un Deux Trois and Smart contributed to the restaurant's design.
"When Michael was applying for a liquor license for Un Deux Trois, he asked me to write a letter of character to the city," said Smart. "So I wrote this letter that said, 'I'm writing this letter of character for Michael Morse, and my god, is he a character.' "
Morse was 74 and living in St. Cloud when he died on Aug. 20.
Cafe Un Deux Trois opened in the Foshay Tower in May 1992, and along with its French bistro menu, atmospheric setting and attentive service, the restaurant stood out because Morse adapted a larger-than-life role as the epitome of the backslapping, air-kissing host, a whirling dervish who glad-handed and snubbed with equal dexterity.
"Michael was wonderfully polarizing," said Wayne Kostroski, co-owner of the former Tejas, where Morse was briefly employed. "He was one of the few guys where you could go to 10 people, and half would say, 'I don't want to talk to that guy,' and the other half would say, 'I love that guy, where is he, I want to give him a hug.' "
As Cafe Un Deux Trois' cashmere-clad banterer-in-chief, Morse's happy place was taking center stage in a crowded dining room and directing traffic, the bluster of his gravelly voice alternating between purr and growl. The buttoned-up Twin Cities dining scene had never witnessed anything like this transplanted New Yorker.
"It was pure theater to him," said Jo Davison, Morse's former wife. They met — where else? — at Cafe Un Deux Trois. "He knew he wasn't like everyone else, that he wasn't Midwestern. A regular comment that he heard was, 'You're not from here, are you?' "
A catalyst for chefs
During its 11-year run, the critically acclaimed restaurant developed a wide and loyal clientele, particularly at lunchtime, when it was a magnet for power players in advertising, law, finance and the arts.
The kitchen also served as a launchpad for two chefs who went on to high-profile careers.
After Andrew Zimmern's four-year Cafe Un Deux Trois tenure ended in 1996, he went on to create the "Bizarre Foods" franchise for the Travel Channel, "What's Eating America" for MSNBC and "Family Dinner" for the Magnolia Network. He looks back on his time at the restaurant with great affection.
"Nobody cracked me up more than Michael," said Zimmern. "We had nights at the restaurant where it was impossible for me to work because I was laughing so hard. Michael loved being a loud, brash, mensch-y New Yorker, and I say that as a loud, brash, mensch-y New Yorker."
One word that Zimmern invoked to describe Morse is "eccentric."
"He had his own unique management style," said Zimmern. "He did nothing by the book. He wasn't even aware of a book. He was a warm, generous and loving human being, and like many great human beings, he was completely impossible much of the time. He pushed the patience, tolerance and understanding of the Minnesota dining public to its edges, that's for sure."
Vincent Francoual was at the Cafe Un Deux Trois helm from 1998 to 2001, then went on to spend 14 years running his own eponymous, top-rated restaurant on Nicollet Mall.
Following countless servings of steak au poivre and crème brûlée, Cafe Un Deux Trois closed in 2003.
Morse being Morse, he posted a sign on the front door that read, "Cafe Un Deux Trois passed away April 5, 2003, one month prior to her 77th year (in cafe years). She is survived by her proud father and founder Michael Morse and by the many staff who served her during her long gracious life. She will be sadly missed by the thousands of friends she served and entertained during her lifetime. The family requests that in lieu of memorials you continue to remember her good days and times. She is sadly missed by all."
'A good man with a very bad disease'
Morse was born and raised in the Bronx. His parents, Joseph and Cynthia Morse, changed the family surname — originally Moskowitz — to avoid anti-Semitism.
After spending a decade in Southern California, where he ran a swimsuit and roller skate shop on Venice Beach ("And you can just imagine that," said Davison with a laugh), Morse returned to New York City and worked for many years at the first Cafe Un Deux Trois, where his older brother Billy was a partner.
Starting as a teenager, Morse was plagued with addiction issues, and after several stints of chemical dependency rehabilitation at what is now the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Center City, Minn., he decided to remain in the Twin Cities and create a restaurant that closely mirrored the original Cafe Un Deux Trois.
In the years after Cafe Un Deux Trois closed (the Manhattan iteration continues to operate), Morse went on to be a memorable front-of-house presence at other Twin Cities restaurants, including A Rebours in St. Paul and the Normandy Kitchen in Minneapolis. Eventually, his sobriety lapsed, his 13-year marriage ended and he maintained a very low profile, breaking off contact with colleagues, friends and loved ones.
"He really separated himself from his community," said Davison. "Addiction was a clear element in his life, but he was so much more than that. Michael was really special. He was funny, and he was kind. Funny and kind, what can be better?"
Davison recalls that Morse placed many people in recovery on the Cafe Un Deux Trois payroll.
"He was a good man, with a very bad disease," said Zimmern. "His life was filled with incredible highs and incredible lows, but during the 1990s he was one of the great characters of the Twin Cities."
No services are scheduled.