Kathy Kriger drifts elegantly through her restaurant at the edge of Casablanca’s rough-and-tumble medina, surveying a room lined with arches and columns. Squat brass lamps with jaunty beaded shades glow on tables arranged around the white-and-black tiled central courtyard. The wood is dark and handsome. The piano owns pride of place.
Maybe it’s not entirely her bar: the sign out front says “Rick’s Cafe,” just like the den of gamblers and secret agents in Casablanca, the classic film that made its general-release US debut 70 years ago. With its story of World War II intrigue, the movie enshrined Humphrey Bogart (as Rick, an idealistic American mercenary–turned–bar owner) and Ingrid Bergman as stars and created an enduring image of this North African city in American minds. When the Oregon native moved to Morocco for a US consulate job in 1998, however, she found no real-life Rick’s.
“I loved Casablanca right away,” the 66-year-old Kriger says, citing the city’s art deco architecture and bustling markets. When she left government work after the September 11 attacks, she reclaimed an old house in a dense neighborhood that reminded her of New Orleans.
The medina, the historical Arab quarter that is one of the oldest parts of the ancient city, was dirty and sometimes dangerous. Her building was in horrendous disrepair, but the balcony overlooked palms and the Atlantic and hinted at the movie’s gritty romance. As she oversaw reconstruction, Kriger watched and rewatched Casablanca, translating a film shot on Hollywood backlots in 1942 into North African reality. She plucked décor, rugs, screens, and light fixtures from local souks.
Today, Rick’s enjoys a loyal following. Tourists come to bask in romance and buy a T-shirt. But locals come also—on America’s election night, a lively table of Moroccans gathered to await results. The restaurant is popular with expats grateful to find a real cocktail.
“Our street is Boulevard Sour Jdid,” Kriger says. “A friend in Lake Oswego said, ‘You’ve got to have a house cocktail called Sour Jdid.’” She concocted the drink in a corner of the bar, smashing lemon slices into a glass, followed by ice, scotch, red sweet vermouth, and Moroccan sparkling water.
Perhaps the most important accessory: music. “I had to have a pianist,” Kriger recalls. “A friend called and said, ‘I’ve got one. His name is Issam.’ And I said, ‘Well, I hope he can play, because he could get the job just with his name.’” As Issam—echoing the film’s famous Sam, portrayed by Dooley Wilson—plays it again, Kriger lives upstairs. Just like Bogart’s Rick.
Kriger’s book, Rick’s Café: Bringing the Film Legend to Life in Casablanca, is available now from Lyons Press.