Seven decades after the premiere of the film classic Casablanca, the Moroccan port city remains firmly associated in many people's minds with the movie, even though Rick's Café Américain, where much of the story took place, was a pure creation of Hollywood.
Casablanca, a story of love and intrigue during World War II, premiered Nov. 26, 1942. Today, the city is a vibrant, noisy metropolis of 4 million people and Morocco's commercial capital, nothing like the wartime colonial outpost depicted in the iconic movie, which starred Humphrey Bogart as Rick. But a trip through the city's swanky lounges and dive bars can still evoke the spirit of the cafe from the movie. There's even a real-life Rick's Cafe here, founded by an American expat.
In the film, Rick's Café Américain, an expansive space, had it all: a casino, singers, full brass band and round tables where guests hunched conspiratorially, drinking and talking about resisting the Nazis or getting exit visas to flee to America.
Outside the cafe's paneled doors, the movie depicted generic dusty streets and markets. Characters talked about "rotting" away in Casablanca, described as being in the middle of a desert. In fact, Casablanca in 1942 was a jewel of the French colonial empire, famous for luscious art deco and neo-classic architecture.
Those buildings still stand, though some are a bit worse for the wear. Casablanca's downtown still looks like a European city in the 1950s with an "oriental" twist. For decades after the war Casablanca was filled with jazz clubs and cabarets that hosted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Josephine Baker. The movie's pianist, Sam, would have fit right in.
But the last jazz club closed in 1984 amid conservatism and a turn away from Western music. Tourists passing through the city looking for Rick's in those years were often disappointed by traffic-choked streets and the glass and concrete towers of a modern city. But in recent years, more nightspots have opened, including, in 2004, Rick's Cafe.
"I was amazed in my four years here that no one ever thought of establishing a Rick's Cafe," recalled its owner, Kathy Kriger. Her previous career as a diplomat in Casablanca's U.S. consulate gave her the connections she needed to open the restaurant amid Morocco's red tape and bureaucracy.
Her elegant restaurant, in a 1930s townhouse on the edge of Casablanca's medina, is awash in nostalgia for the classic film. Kriger can be found most nights perched on the end of the long bar, while a piano player — named Issam, not Sam — plays the movie's theme song, As Time Goes By, repeatedly.
The real-life Rick's is a hit, filled with well-heeled locals and visitors from everywhere, from Atlanta to Japan. Outside a tour bus is usually parked next to the BMWs and Audis of the dinner crowd.
The conspiratorial feel of Rick's Cafe is also evoked in La Cigale (the Cicada), a downtown haunt of intellectuals and journalists. The bar at first glance has the intimidating look of many Casablanca dives, with too many mustaches and cigarettes. But in back, the place widens out to an arched room filled with all ages. A stone-faced waiter known as Nora deftly moves through the crowd, popping open beer bottles one-handed as she deposits them on tables, saving the occasional half-smile or smirk for young regulars.
Music from a coin-operated jukebox can get the crowd dancing beneath a few colored lights and a half-disco ball, while aspiring musicians take the stage for open mike nights.
The walls bear photos of regulars, called "Children of the Cigale," as well as paintings of traditional scenes and the odd portrait of the royal family. Chatter ranges from the latest palace outrage against democracy to last night's romantic exploits.
Also downtown is the Cintra, a cramped bar known for cheap beer and live Arabic music, open until the wee hours. Upstairs in the mezzanine, aficionados of the Arabic lute, or oud, gather to hear thoughtful performances, while downstairs it's noisy, raucous and good natured.
For the most part, however, Casablanca's nightlife has moved away from downtown. The remaining cabarets are often venues for earsplitting Egyptian-style belly-dance music and prostitutes who tend to be more aggressive than the lazily swaying dancers in the Blue Parrot, Rick's main nightlife competition in the movie.
Casablanca's elite prefer the high-end bars and swanky nightclubs along the coast in the Corniche area. A standout is Le Cabestan, a multilevel restaurant, lounge and nightclub on the beach with stunning views of the Atlantic's crashing waves.
In the movie, Rick's Cafe is near the airport, its facade swept by the control tower's spotlight. At Le Cabestan, Casablanca's lighthouse spotlights a terrace overlooking the ocean as patrons drink cocktails with names like the Pornstar.
The music is lounge groove, cocktails are pricey (upwards of $14), but it's worth it for the glamorous crowd and picture windows on the sea.
Getting into the fictional Rick's wasn't always easy. A curt shake of the head from Bogart was enough to tell the doorman when someone was persona non grata. Similarly, in modern Casablanca, where fancy neighborhoods often lie next to bidonvilles or slums, heavyset men in black suits stationed at restaurant doors also give would-be patrons the once-over.
The door scene is refreshingly absent at B-Rock, a club in the heart of the Corniche strip that caters to Casablanca's alternative crowd. It offers a quiet bar area with pool tables as well as a lively downstairs where bands play. One night, a male-female team belted out North African songs and Western pop hits to a casually dressed young crowd. A French-language song from a Berber songwriter segued into Lady Gaga's Poker Face, followed by a fist-pumping classic from Metallica.
Many of the clientele are artists and musicians themselves. More than a few are involved in the February 20 pro-democracy movement, Morocco's version of the Arab Spring, which organized demonstrations calling for political reform last year.
Mohammed Merhari, who started B-Rock two years ago, tries to get different acts every night, from rock bands to electronic music to video art installations to reggae. As in Bogart's cafe, between musical acts, there's talk of politics.
"You have young people from the left or the far left and others who aren't political at all and so there is the chance to hear and see debates among these people," said Merhari.
However, he cautions against coming to his club looking to re-create Hollywood's Casablanca.
"We don't do much jazz, we don't have a piano and we don't live in black and white," he said, with a touch of Rick's gruff humor from the movie. "This place is for young people who live in the 21st century. We live in color."