CASABLANCA, Morocco -- Our reservation was for 9 p.m., and it was my wife's birthday, so we ducked into a swanky hotel bar for a cocktail first. On the wall, a neon sign flickered: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
I was getting close.
Drinks done, we jumped into a red "petit taxi," as they're still called in this former French protectorate, and made our way down dusty, palm-lined streets to Rick's Cafe. Two tall guards waved us past heavy wooden doors, and another bowed with a flourish as he pulled aside a curtain, and there it was.
"It's smaller than I thought," I whispered to my wife. "It's beautiful," she said.
Rick's Cafe, of course, is the re-creation of something that never was: Rick's Cafe Americain, the smoky, intrigue-filled nightclub built in 1942 on a Warner Bros. sound stage for Casablanca, the timeless Hollywood film of love, betrayal and schmaltz in the terrible early days of World War II.
Kathy Kriger, a retired U.S. diplomat, had opened Rick's in 2004 after renovating a dilapidated Moroccan home with a huge interior courtyard, betting it would draw an international clientele eager to mix nostalgia with fine food and jazz. She died in July, but Rick's lives on, and for good reason.
It's a period piece meant to evoke the 1940s. The brassy saxes from Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" played on a soundtrack as we entered. We were quickly led under arches and past cedar screens to a private table by the wall. A beaded table lamp flickered while stenciled brass lanterns and strategically placed potted palms sent soft shadows dancing around the room. It felt intimate, even a bit glamorous.
Rashid, our fez-topped waiter, recommended the roast duck and lamb shank with couscous. (All anyone eats in the picture is caviar, but the menu at Rick's is more egalitarian.) By then, the pianist had started his set and soon enough began playing "As Time Goes By."
By the time our food arrived, a Cuban chanteuse and a Venezuelan percussionist had taken over, belting out fado-like torch songs, and the cafe came alive as we savored our meal. More red wine, sweet mint tea and a sumptuous lava cake later, I went in search of Issam Chabaa, the piano player and Rick's longtime manager. Originally from Rabat, Morocco, Chabaa is 53, with a dapper mustache, a goatee and the polite but jaded manner of a proper saloon keeper. He made it clear that he has a bemused view of the cafe's popularity.
"People don't come for the food," he said. "They come for the theme. They come for the dream. It's a fantasy for some people. It means so much to them to be here. It still surprises me."
Social media are full of protests by tourists who were turned away at the door because they showed up in shorts and sandals. But Chabaa defends the dress code as a way to maintain the ambience — and the illusion.
"Some people get mad," he said. "They say, 'But these are $200 designer jeans,' and I say, 'I'm sorry, but they're still torn jeans.' We try not to be too rigid. But if someone sits down wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt, we get complaints from other customers."
For more information, visit rickscafe.ma.
Travel on 12/02/2018
Print Headline: Rick's Cafe remembers classic film Casablanca