Handicraft vendors at the Habous Market.
(c) Kevin Morris / Getty Images
I return to Rick’s for dinner Saturday night. Kriger has reserved Table No. 6 for me, the one closest to the 1930s-era piano. With the table lamps and hanging lanterns illuminated, the place is suffused with magic. The crowd is mostly, but not entirely, local and French-speaking. Upstairs, four young Americans smoke cigars around the roulette table. A stainless steel tray displays oysters from Madame Zohra, Kriger’s go-to vendor at the Marché Central. Champagne corks pop around me. And Chabaa, at the keyboards, plays “Cheek to Cheek,” “The Lady Is a Tramp” and, of course, “As Time Goes By.” I sip a Sour Jdid (a pun on the name of the boulevard where Rick’s is located — a whiskey sour with sweet vermouth instead of sugar) and enjoy a Salade de Gambas Tropicana: cool shrimp, avocado and papaya dressed with argan oil, lemon, honey and curry. Overhead, an almost full moon shines through the cupola.
Bar man Abderrahim Zaoui at Rick’s Café
A trio walks in. They look around, mouths agape as they drink in the fantasia before taking seats at the bar. One breaks from his friends and leans over the piano. He begins to sing, in a discreet tenor, as Chabaa plays “When I Fall in Love.” (If a customer becomes musically obnoxious, Chabaa knows how to switch to the obscure and unsingable.)
Kriger makes the rounds, welcoming guests, wishing them bon appétit. As “Madame Rick,” she used to wear a tuxedo at night. It didn’t quite suit her, and tonight she wears a stylized black velvet caftan from a souk in Marrakech and a brown silk scarf from Paris. When she’s not hosting, she watches the proceedings from a spot at the bar marked Reservé.
The following night, Rick’s is busier still: Twenty-nine Japanese tourists arrive early in the evening, followed by 46 diners from an international gathering of college presidents. The large parties sit upstairs, overlooking the courtyard. On the ground level, Chabaa joins a Moroccan bassist, French saxophonist and American drummer for an evening of jazz that runs from Dave Brubeck to Stevie Wonder.
At the next table over, a mother and her adult son wear the same bedazzled look as the trio at the bar. “It’s perfect to be here,” says the son, Chris Huber, a Swiss photographer and graphic designer who is celebrating his 34th birthday at Rick’s. “The atmosphere, the colors, the amazing lights and shadows; when I see the movie again tomorrow evening, I will look for the details.” In a 21st-century twist, Huber has already posted his location to Facebook and is reading responses on his smartphone from envious friends.
Upon learning that it’s Huber’s birthday, Kriger sends him a complimentary glass bowl of chocolate mousse with a birthday candle. Madame Rick is a role, she says, that she was always meant to play. And it’s a role she loves to talk about, “because I think it does say a lot about American entrepreneurial spirit.” Kriger is now collaborating with writer Cathie Gandel on a memoir called Rick’s Café: Bringing the Screen Legend to Life in Casablanca. It will be published in November 2012, in time for the movie’s 70th anniversary.
The release of a memoir should not suggest her imminent retirement. “This is the crossroads of all my passions in life,” Kriger says. As long as there’s a Rick’s Café, “I’ll always have a place to eat. I’ll always have a corner seat at the bar. And I’ll never have to clean up.”