When an American ex-diplomat decided to re-create an icon from Casablanca in Morocco, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
A different version of this story was published in American Way.
THE EVENING I LANDED IN CASABLANCA, Morocco, I decided to lose myself in the Ancienne Médina, the old walled quartier that butts up against the city’s busy port. Without a reliable map, I randomly navigated the brick alleyways, passing markets with caged, live chickens, two-seat barbershops, and narrow carts piled high with oranges. Mothers pushing strollers dodged soccer balls in miniature plazas. Music from tinny radios poured out of shop windows. I wandered in fascination for an hour—until hunger finally overwhelmed my curiosity.
At one of the gates of the medina, I approached two police officers who are chatting with a friend, and asked how to find a certain restaurant. They argued between themselves for a while. Then the friend pat the seat of his motorbike, inviting me aboard. He tore down the street, honking his horn and scattering pedestrians before merging into a wide boulevard. I gripped his shoulders as we weaved through buses and bicycles, and I exhaled as he pulled up to a restored mansion at the medina’s edge. It wasn’t the restaurant I was looking for. But it was a familiar landmark, and close enough. A sign over the balcony window, in art deco script, said Rick’s Café.
Kathy Kriger, the owner of Rick’s—and the woman I had come to Morocco’s largest city to interview—was delighted when I later recounted that story. “Everybody comes to Rick’s,” she said, 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.
THE DAY AFTER THE MOTORBIKE INCIDENT, I sit with 64-year-old Kriger, a Portland, Ore., native, in the “drinking lounge” on the second floor of Rick’s, overlooking the port. In the center of the small room sits a roulette table, its top covered with glass, the chips permanently sitting on No. 22. (That’s the number Bogart’s Rick advised a Bulgarian refugee to bet on in order to win money for his and his wife’s transit letters.) Casablanca posters, including a Japanese one, blanket the walls, and the subtitled film loops silently. Downstairs, lunch is being served, and Kriger disappears once during our interview to greet the U.S. consul general and the Korean ambassador.
She was once part of that diplomatic corps. A former travel agent who ran her own successful company, Kriger moved to Tokyo in 1985 with her son and managed an executive office center for businesses new to the market. She loved Japan, where she had lived twice before, and enjoyed helping firms break into the Japanese market. But as her son approached his adolescent years, “I wanted to get back under the American umbrella,” she says. She applied to the U.S. Commercial Service, a federal agency that promotes international trade, assuming her familiarity with Japanese language and culture would help her win a position there.
“All of a sudden, I was informed that I was going to be posted to Prague—after going back to Washington and studying Czech for a year,” she says. It wasn’t what she expected, but it intrigued her enough to take the plunge. After four years in Prague, Kriger was transferred to Casablanca. Immediately, Morocco enchanted her.
“If you feel curious and open, and you’re willing to discover, it’s a country that will just keep feeding you,” she says. “The people are so hospitable and open.” Morocco, among the most pro-American Muslim countries, is known for its cuisine, fine materials and workmanship. And Casablanca, a mostly 20th-century city that lacks the tourism draws of ancient Marrakech and Fez, suited Kriger well. She loved shopping for oysters and produce at the Marché Central, a walled open-air market in the city center. She appreciated local efforts to restore the colonial architecture. And she liked that Casablanca is a “real city,” chaotic and intellectually vibrant, with a powerful economy that doesn’t revolve around selling carpets to tourists.
What she didn’t like was being a government employee. “I had too much entrepreneurial experience and independence to be happy working for a large bureaucracy,” she says. “I became known in Washington as someone who just wasn’t going to play the game.” The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon strengthened her conviction that she needed to move on. Despite Morocco’s pro-American response—including an ecumenical service at Cathédrale St. Pierre in Rabat attended by the prime minister—Kriger saw her fellow citizens turning inward and painting Arabs and Muslims with a broad brush. “When 9/11 happened, I just knew [President Bush] was going to use it to divide the American people,” she says. When her Morocco appointment drew to an end and she was offered a transfer back to Japan, she declined.
Kriger still wanted to be a diplomat, but in another form.
With relations souring between the United States and the Muslim world, she believed the two sides needed some cultural diplomacy. What better avenue than a real-life version of Casablanca‘s Hollywood movie set? “Rick’s Café could be a symbol that could stand for America: sacrifice for the common good, optimism, risk-taking and decency,” she says.
Kriger’s own story could shine a light on moderate Islam, and particularly on a country in which an American woman could open a liquor-serving bar within walking distance of one of the world’s largest mosques.
The fact that Rick’s Café Américain had existed only as a set on the Warner Bros. lot in Hollywood—where nearly all the movie was filmed—didn’t deter Kriger. And she remained undaunted despite knowing she would be tinkering with a silver-screen icon adored by millions of movie lovers. Kriger visited her friend Driss Benhima, the governor of Grand Casablanca. “You need to find a place in the old medina,” he said, envisioning that Rick’s could spur other investment there. Kriger had seldom visited the medina; she thought of it as the place one goes to buy counterfeit handbags. But Benhima walked her through a more architecturally distinguished section, and her interest was piqued.
Two months later, they visited a house that on first blush didn’t look very promising, with its bare bulbs, broken stairs and cracked plaster. Then the owner’s daughter opened an interior door—and Kriger saw the space was palatial. It had a central courtyard topped with an octagonal cupola, and a balcony overlooking the ocean. “It was totally, totally perfect,” she says—and available for only $175,000. “It was a sign to me that this was my destiny.” She watched the movie again that night—and in 2002, she quit her job to work on Rick’s full time.
KRIGER RECRUITED BILL WILLIS, an American-born designer living in Marrakech, who drew up plans for everything from the tiled central staircase to the inlaid oak floors. She watched Casablanca repeatedly, taking notes about decor, costumes and lighting. She commissioned 42 beaded lamps, as well as the brass lanterns that now hang in the courtyard. And she decided that, like the original Rick, she would live in an apartment upstairs from the café.
It was all coming together. And it wasn’t.
First, her major investor pulled out, forcing Kriger to solicit funds from her friends and colleagues. (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” she wrote them, “I’d like you to buy into mine.”) The bank tried to rescind her loan. Some of the subcontractors skimped on Willis’ original design, and it was left to Kriger to manage them. Renovations ran 100 percent over budget, to more than $1 million, drawing Kriger’s checking account down to $40 at one point. And in the most crushing development, Benhima, the governor, was transferred away from Casablanca, costing her a powerful ally. “As they say in the movie: After that, there were vultures, vultures everywhere,” she recalls. Bureaucratic hoops popped up, and it appeared to Kriger as if some regulators were soliciting bribes. “I used canny naïveté,” she says. “I would just not even address, ‘Could I pay you something?'” When permits were delayed, Kriger complained and threatened to go public. “I had the spirit of Rick: tough and making his way.”
Nobody accused her of being easy to work with. But the result of her hardheadedness was an exacting renovation—and now a successful business.
“Kathy is very demanding from everybody because she’s very tough with herself,” says Chabaa, the pianist, who is also the manager. She has to be: The Bogart movie is always on first-time customers’ minds, and they arrive expecting a place that’s even classier than the studio set. A single mistake can snap them out of their nostalgia. “Because it’s a fantasy, the level of expectation is high,” he says. “People come in straight from Mexico, from Australia, without even checking into their hotels. We can’t disappoint.”
For one recent customer, visiting from Croatia, the fantasy effect was so strong that she thought Kriger might actually have some letters of transit. “Madame Rick? Madame Rick?” she asked, “My boyfriend and I are traveling through West Africa. Can you help us get into Senegal?” Telling me that story, Kriger paraphrases another line from the movie: “I didn’t want to be mean and say, ‘Take my advice and go back to Zagreb.'”
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.
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 Film 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.”