For over sixty years, visitors to Casablanca were disappointed to learn that Casablanca was shot in Hollywood and that Rick’s Café didn’t really exist. That changed when I gave up my diplomatic career to bring the legendary “gin joint” to life. In 2003, I secured financing to restore a grand 1930s mansion in the center of the city. I hired the brilliant artist Bill Willis to oversee design and decoration. And on March 1, 2004, the Rick’s Café that had always existed in people’s minds but had never actually existed suddenly came to life.
For New Year’s Eve, we transformed the watering hole into a desert tent: The art deco gave way to Oriental opulence. Guests donned turbans and fezzes, played roulette, enjoyed jazz and a traditional, Moroccan band, and feasted on a menu that included oysters on the half-shell, whitefish brochettes, veal medallions with eggplant tapenade and pastry of pistachio mousse with dates and cinnamon cream. At midnight, the champagne toast and Auld Lang Syne were drowned out by a troupe of djellaba-clad musicians, normally seen and heard playing in the street during weddings. The brass horns, tambourines and drums, together with their shouts and hand-clapping, brought everyone to their feet. (See here for a videotaped glimpse inside the party.)
2014 is a major milestone for Rick’s Café — our 10th anniversary. Our site will get an upgrade (we want to make sure that everyone does indeed come to Rick’s), and we’ll continue doing what I set out to do in the beginning: to create a place and a feeling that is at once real and make believe, that captures the essence of Casablanca while tapping into the magic of Casablanca. When you’re at Rick’s, you should feel as if you are in a real place with real people, but that everything is a little better, familiar, civilized, the way we’d like things to be always, on screen and off.