Reinventing Rick's Café

A former U.S. diplomat, Kathy Kriger opened a restaurant in Casablanca in the aftermath of 9/11.

By Kathy Kriger, as told to Cathie Gandel
Rick's Cafe, Morocco, restaurant reinvention
Kathy Kriger, aided by her porter, Mohamed Khouiled, stocks up on fresh coriander, fennel and arugula
Photograph: Photo by DITTE ISAGER

It’s a gorgeous, cloudless June day in Casablanca, and a maintenance crew from the local electric company is preparing to dig up the street in front of my elegant water- -front restaurant. Their timing is impeccable. Rick’s Café is about to begin lunch service, and my guests will have to maneuver around piles of broken cement to get into the restaurant. “Ce n’est pas grave, Madame. C’est le Maroc. Il faut adapter,” the foreman tells me. (“This is not serious, Madame. This is Morocco. One must adapt.”) I want to tell him that if there’s one thing I’ve learned while living in Morocco, it’s that adapting would be the worst possible mistake. Seven years ago, I set out to turn Rick’s Café Américain, the iconic gin joint in the movie Casablanca, into a reality, and if I’d adapted every time someone told me something couldn’t be done, the place would still be a celluloid fiction. Instead, I tell the crew firmly to move elsewhere until lunch is over. The men roll up the yellow tape and take their jackhammers to another area. “They didn’t even look up when I was trying to get them to stop,” says my maintenance chief as he follows me back into the restaurant.

Of course, he didn’t have Bogie as his inspiration—or at least Rick, the character Humphrey Bogart played in the movie. Like many fans, I’d imagined that Rick’s Café was real, but when I was posted to Casablanca in 1998 as
commercial attaché for the U.S. Consulate General, I discovered that the place was a 1943 Hollywood fantasy. Warner Brothers had built the entire set, using hundreds of photos of Moroccan-style buildings, street scenes and costumes for inspiration. The idea of creating a real Rick’s crossed my mind—I love cooking and entertaining, and had racked up some entrepreneurial experience before entering the foreign service—but instead I threw myself into my diplomatic work, helping American companies do business with Morocco. And I fell in love with the country.

Casablanca is a complex city with some rough edges—noise, traffic, pollution, poverty—and its charms are secret and subtle: Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture in the town’s center; fragrant spice and food markets. The cuisine is one of the most refined in the world, and the people’s hospitality is legendary. Morocco is also known for its religious tolerance. Although it’s a Muslim country, women are free to dress as they wish, and in Casablanca, Western fashion prevails.

After three years, I was still at the consulate when the 9/11 attacks occurred. The next day, still reeling from the horror of what I’d seen on TV, I slipped my copy of Casablanca into the VCR. Something about the wartime urgency in the film resonated with me. It reminded me of the values Americans exhibited during World War II: sacrifice for the greater good, sympathy for the underdog and the willingness to take a stand. I thought
that if I—a lone American woman, of a certain age (I was 54 at the time)—could bring Rick’s Café to life in
Casablanca during a turbulent time, it could become more than a nostalgic tribute to a beloved movie. It could represent the best of American values and showcase a progressive Muslim country.

By the end of that week, I made the decision to leave the foreign service and start a new chapter in my life. Creating Rick’s Café became, in the words of the movie’s theme song, “a case of do or die.”Thankfully, I had no idea of the financial and emotional turmoil I’d face during the two and a half years it would take to bring the project to fru- ition. The movie was my constant companion during the process, a source of inspiration, comfort, encouragement and ideas. I watched it hundreds of times. In the solitude of my apartment, with a notebook by my side, I jotted down favorite lines of dialogue and details about furniture, plants, clothing and lighting techniques. I noted that the only food served in the film is caviar, which meant I’d have carte blanche when it came to developing a menu. I was a woman obsessed.  

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