The main square in Casablanca, Morocco
Scott Robin Barbour
When an American ex-diplomat decided to re-create an icon from Casablanca in Morocco, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The evening I land in Casablanca, Morocco, I decide to lose myself in the Ancienne Médina, the old walled quarter that butts up against the city’s busy port. Without a reliable map, I randomly navigate the brick alleyways, passing markets with caged, live chickens, two-seat barbershops and narrow carts piled high with oranges. Mothers pushing strollers dodge soccer balls in miniature plazas. Music from tinny radios pours out of shop windows. I wander in fascination for an hour — until hunger finally overwhelms my curiosity.
Kathy Kriger, owner of Rick’s Café, sits at her spot at the bar marked Reservé
At one of the gates of the medina, I approach two police officers who are chatting with a friend, and ask how to find a certain restaurant. They argue between themselves for a while. Then the friend pats the seat of his motorbike, inviting me aboard. He tears down the street, honking his horn and scattering pedestrians before merging into a wide boulevard. I grip his shoulders as we weave through buses and bicycles, and I exhale as he pulls up to a restored mansion at the medina’s edge. It’s not the restaurant I’m looking for. But it’s a familiar landmark, and close enough. A sign over the balcony window, in art deco script, says Rick’s Café.
Kathy Kriger, the owner of Rick’s — and the woman I had come to Morocco’s largest city to interview — is delighted when I later recount that story. “Everybody comes to Rick’s,” she says, quoting a line from the 1942 film Casablanca. An American-born former commercial diplomat, Kriger left her government job to re-create the fictional gin joint presided over by the Humphrey Bogart character, Rick Blaine. Kriger took the mythical Rick’s Café Américain — where Nazi and Vichy officials rubbed shoulders with French Resistance members, and refugees came looking for letters of transit — and turned it into an atmospheric bar and restaurant designed to make customers feel like they’ve stepped back into the 1940s. Bartenders sport fezzes; beaded lamps adorn the tables; and a Moroccan pianist named Issam Chabaa plays a luscious version of the movie’s signature tune, “As Time Goes By.” It’s a well-appointed stage that invites Moroccans, expatriates and travelers to step through its velvet curtains and onto the set of one of America’s iconic films.
Bringing Casablanca to Casablanca was daunting, though. Before she could open the first real Rick’s Café, Kriger had to endure a series of backstage dramas of her own.