From Hollywood studio to Morocco

Sunday, May 9, 2004

CASABLANCA, Morocco -- There's a new gin joint in town, and now everybody comes to Rick's.

In homage to the movie "Casablanca," a former U.S. diplomat has opened a Rick's Cafe in this bustling port city. But you won't find Sam at the keyboard -- these days, the pianist's name is Issam.

The elegant nightclub where Humphrey Bogart's character Rick pined for Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa was just a set on a Warner Bros. sound stage in California.

The new Rick's has the same warm atmosphere as the Hollywood original. It's a white villa with palm trees flanking the door. Inside are arched passageways and traditional hanging lamps of colored glass.

And there's not a single photo of Bogart on the walls.

"Rick's Cafe is no longer just a film, it's not a museum, it's a reality," said founder Kathy Kriger. Nearby, waiters in traditional fez caps and wide-legged pants serve customers at candlelit tables.

The elegant restaurant, which debuted in March, is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. A typical meal costs around $30.

Pianist Issam Chabaa, who is from the capital, Rabat, plays songs from the '40s and '50s. On Sunday nights, Kriger serves popcorn and chili con carne and screens "Casablanca."

Kriger, 57, says she watched the classic film hundreds of times to study the atmosphere, lighting and lines.

Kriger left her job as a commercial attache at the U.S. Consulate in Casablanca when she was supposed to transfer to Tokyo in 2002. She'd become too attached to her new home.

She scouted for locations and decided to open the restaurant in Casablanca's medina, a bustling labyrinth of narrow streets and shops. It took months to get the various authorizations.

Kriger said she wanted to promote American-Moroccan dialogue in the North African kingdom, which stretches from the Mediterranean to the Sahara.

"After Sept. 11, I realized that maybe certain authentic American values were no longer understood in the Muslim world," Kriger said. "I wanted to show how Americans can be: open, determined and persevering."

Kriger, a native of Portland, Ore., says she hopes to show a positive image of Americans by doing business in Morocco. And she hopes that Rick's will prove Morocco is ripe for investment and open to female entrepreneurs.

"Because there has never been a Rick's Cafe here, I could be reasonably assured that it would succeed," she said. "It was already an institution, and it never even existed. It's not often you get a chance to turn myth into reality."



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