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 dark 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 Café Américain, the smoky, intrigue-filled nightclub built in 1942 on a Warners Bros. sound stage for “Casablanca,” the timeless Hollywood film of love, betrayal and schmaltz in the terrible early days of World War II.
I’d first seen it as a boy. My mother had pulled me out of school for the afternoon, correctly figuring I’d learn more from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman than from algebra class. Today, I know infinitely more about the film than I do about polynomials. I’ve seen it countless times over the years, most recently aboard our Air France flight en route to Casablanca — and to Rick’s.
Kathy Kriger, a retired U.S. diplomat, had opened Rick’s in 2004 after renovating a dilapidated dar, a traditional 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. If you’ve ever seen the film — and everyone should — you’ll enjoy Rick’s.
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.”
Dooley Wilson memorably sang it in the film (but did not actually play it; he was a drummer), but this was keyboards only. And unlike in the film, the piano was a baby grand, not an upright. But enough trivia. The room briefly hushed in quiet appreciation.
After a dry martini, I wandered up a winding tiled staircase near the entrance. It led to a balcony with more tables, on this night filled with what appeared to be Chinese tourists. French couples clustered in a nearby lounge where “Casablanca” was silently showing with subtitles — apparently on an endless loop — on a widescreen, and two well-dressed couples were smoking and drinking Champagne at the roulette table.
Gambling is legal in Morocco —you’re shocked, shocked, right? — but it was covered with glass. A pile of chips lay on No. 22 because, well, you know.
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. We quickly retired to the marble-topped bar, grabbing leather stools at one end.
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.”
There’s a downside to running a nightclub based, in large part, on a mirage. Forget, for a moment, the racism and implied sexual misconduct in the film. Patrons grouse that Chabaa doesn’t wear a white dinner jacket, that he refuses to lead them in singing “La Marseillaise” and even that he isn’t black.
“When it’s a dream, anything different is a problem,” he said. “It puts the bar very high for us.”
Recently, he said, an older Mexican fan showed up. “He said he’d wanted to come to Rick’s since he was 15. I said, ‘We weren’t here when you were 15.’ He said, ‘You’ve always been here in my mind.’”
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 ambiance — 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.”
He told me that he’d seen “Casablanca” only once and that he wasn’t that impressed. I was stunned. This was heresy.
“I don’t know what the big deal is with that movie,” Chabaa said with a shrug. “I don’t know what makes it so special. It’s efficient, it’s a good love story, it’s exotic. But it’s so clichéd.”
His favorite films? “Morocco” and “Garden of Allah,” two Marlene Dietrich classics from the 1930s. After a moment’s reflection, I assured Chabaa that if he opened a gin joint for either of those, I’d try them too.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO CASABLANCA, MOROCCO
From LAX, Delta, Air France, Air Canada, Alitalia, Etihad, Emirates, American, United, Delta, British, Air Canada and Iberia offer connecting service (change of planes) to Casablanca. Restricted round-trip airfare from. $766, including taxes and fees.
WHERE TO STAY