If you have dined at some of the cities' top restaurants in the past decade, you may have noticed him. Big guy with a goofy smile, working the front of the room at Pane Vino Dolce or Cave Vin, two venues where he was an owner. He could be either charming or churlish, depending on his mood -- and your attitude.

In an industry famous for indulgence and risk, Charlie (Carlo) Macy fits in. Friend Doug Anderson said Macy almost seems like a fictional character, someone "skimmed from a Kerouac novel."

"Without knowing it, he is Neal Cassady," Anderson said, referring to the Beat Generation raconteur and model for the character Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's "On the Road."

So when Macy, 46, didn't show up for work at the restaurant Rinata two weeks ago, people weren't alarmed at first. Maybe he was off on another misadventure, something they would hear about later. But when his bicycle sat for days outside Nick and Eddie's on Loring Park, where Macy also worked, his friends got worried and made up missing-person fliers.

What they didn't know is that Macy had been found by police, battered and bloody and lying on the street near Cedar-Riverside on Minneapolis' West Bank. For the past two weeks, Macy has been in intensive care at Hennepin County Medical Center, his head swollen and lacerated, his breathing supported by a respirator, as the father of two teenagers struggles for his life.

Police are not sure whether he was hit by a car or attacked, but most of his friends say the injuries to his head appear to be from a vicious beating. Police are investigating.

Anderson and Macy had gone to the 400 Bar to see Hugh Cornwell on Sept. 22. Like a lot of people in the restaurant business, Macy has struggled with chemical dependency, but friends said he was trying to keep clean.

"He was hanging around with me because I'd stopped drinking,'' Anderson said. "He's been great, clear-headed, optimistic."

But when Anderson left the bar, Macy stayed behind. His housemate, Bob Wells, has since discovered that Macy made stops at the Nomad World Pub, Palmer's Bar and Triple Rock Social Club before heading home. He never made it.

So, every day many of the city's top chefs and restaurant owners have filed through the hospital room, hoping to see Macy's famous smile, or hear one of his spellbinding stories. So far, said his brother Anders, Macy has only responded with a slight smile or blink of an eye. Someone said he gave them a faint thumbs up.

Ask people for adjectives for Macy, and you quickly see he is a complex person: Gregarious. Notorious. Wild. Compelling. A natural salesman. At times insecure, at others overbearing.

"He is a fun-loving guy," Anders Macy said. "But he can also be a loose cannon. You can love him or hate him."

His brother remembers that Macy sometimes found homeless people digging through the garbage behind one of his restaurants and instead of shooing them off, he would feed them a gourmet meal. "He'd do anything for you," he said.

Macy often wears striped bib overalls around town, usually with one strap hanging loose. "I think he was trying to establish a new fashion statement," Anders said.

"Carlo is pretty happy-go-lucky," said Rinata owner Jonathan Hunt, who cooked for Macy before Pane Vino Dolce closed. "He doesn't really let the world bring him down."

A few years ago, Macy described one of his restaurants to a reporter this way: "This is, you know, a very small place, very passionate. We keep the white truffle flowing for the lovers, it's quite an aphrodisiac. Our motto is, take it to the edge, don't break the law, and give the customers what they want."

Although he has taken his own life to the edge more than once, his friends believe this is a random crime. Although he wouldn't start a fight, he probably wouldn't back down, Anderson said. Police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Garcia said he doesn't know of any pattern of increasing assaults in the area. But one young man, Joseph Sodd III, was killed near there a year ago, a murder that is still unsolved.

Those who saw Macy two weeks ago in the hospital were sure he was going to die. "He looked like Frankenstein," Anderson said.

Now, they're hopeful and making plans to transfer him to a rehabilitation facility when he's able. "He has severe brain trauma," Anders Macy said. "The ICU nurses are incredible. He's got a long way to go, but he's a guy with nine lives."

"There is no irony in this guy," said Anderson, who has known Macy for 15 years. "He's really sincere and he's extraordinarily generous."

Anderson remembers a trip to Jean Georges' restaurant in New York. "Carlo pushed his way into the kitchen and started kissing Georges and telling him he was a genius. He's unstoppable and, in a way, has led a charmed life.

"I think everybody just expects him to jump out of his hospital bed any day."

jon.tevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702