Perhaps it’s all in the name? Casablanca, a word that rolls off the tongue, promising something exotic and, perhaps, romantic. The Casablanca of Hollywood, Bogie and Bacall, “Play it again Sam,” and rounding up the usual suspects. Or perhaps because Casa, as the locals call it, was a stop on the famed Marrakech Express that wound its way from Tangier, a city known for international intrigue and espionage. What the reality of the matter is, Casablanca is not the romantic vacation locale one dreams of. But as the writer Tahih Shah writes:
“Given time, the city unravels itself, revealing the most amazing corners, a vibrant kaleidoscope of Moroccan life found nowhere else.”
Maybe one just needs to give Casa a bit more time.
After all, Casablanca is the beating heart of modern Morocco. It is the country’s business capital, with all of the hustle and bustle that entails. It’s a Moroccan-style New York, notably dingy around the edges.
Walk the Art Deco streets of Boulevard Mohamed V, shop for Gucci bags at the new Morocco Mall, visit the impressive Hassan II Mosque (one of the few mosques non-Muslims can enter in Morocco), and treat yourself to dinner at a five-star restaurant before heading out to a night at Rick’s Café to hear some great jazz and the nightly staple, “As Time Goes By.”
One of the best deals in the city is Hotel Astrid (12 Rue 6 Novembre, tel. 0522/277 803, 160Dh). The simple rooms have wifi and ensuite bathrooms and are generally clean, though they can suffer from problems with moisture during the winter. (Those sensitive to molds should avoid the hotel during this time.) The location near Place Mohamed V makes the location great for exploration. Breakfast will set you back an extra 35Dh.
If boutique hotels are more your thing, Le Doge Hotel & Spa (9 Rue de Docteur Veyre, tel. 0522/467 800, http://hotelledoge.com, 1,700Dh) is wonderfully maintained with jacuzzi-sized tubs, rich wood furniture, plush beds and art deco-period touches sprinkled throughout the hotel. The onsite spa is one of the most luxurious spas in the city. The salon is a private library with plenty of comfy seats to curl up with a book around the fireplace, while the 5th-floor garden terrace provides plenty of green space to catch some rays. For those spending any time in Casablanca, the pampering available at Le Doge is well worth it.
Café de France (Pl. des Nations Unies on Ave. Hassan II) is the best spot in town for people watching on the patio beneath the arcade, though you might have to fight off a few street vendors. This is a good haunt for literary types looking for a little inspiration as they watch the Casaouias breeze by across the busiest plaza in the city. For a thick hot chocolate worthy of its name, ask for a Chocolat Fondant (22Dh).
A stop in Casablanca is somehow incomplete without hearing Sam croon “As Time Goes By” at Rick’s Café (248 Rue Sour Jdid, tel. 0522/274 207, www.rickscafe.ma, daily noon-3pm and 6:30pm-1am, 250Dh)—or rather, Issam, as the piano-player is known in this Hollywood-come-to-life restaurant and bar. For those in love with the movie and wanting a dash of romance, Rick’s Café does a wonderful job of recreating the world of Bogie and Bacall. The menu features fresh vegetables and fish selected from the local markets expertly thrown together. Goat cheese salads featuring perfectly ripe figs and perfectly seared swordfish steaks are staples of the menu. The rooftop terrace has views over the port, though likely you’ll want to spend time in the gallant interior of this remarkable replica. If you’re coming for a slice of the big screen Casablanca, then be sure to pack your fancy shoes as the dress code is strictly enforced and even with a reservation, you’ll likely be turned away at the door if you’re wearing sneakers and a baggy sweatshirt. Gentlemen will want to wear a button down and pair of slacks and the ladies should put on their fanciest threads! Of course, if dinner doesn’t suit your palate, you could always just belly up to one of the finest gin joints in Morocco at the expansive bar.
The lovingly rustic Italian Au Four à Bois (20 Jean Jaures, tel. 0522/221 718, daily noon-3pm and 7pm-11pm, 100Dh) features pasta made in-house, and the meat is chargrilled au four à bois, French for “wood oven.” This is the house specialty and from where the restaurant takes its name. Decor is adopted from an Italian trattoria with tribal African touches. Orange lighting and a mix of large round tables and smaller nooks make this place perfect for groups as well as more intimate dinners. Like most other Casablanca restaurants, this one is smoking friendly and does not have a non-smoking section. Reservations are recommended for dinner. Pizzas are highly recommended. To avoid the smoke and still get a delicious pizza, order from the Au Four à Bois Express (42 Omar Slaoui, tel. 0522/485 656, daily noon-11pm), which offers delivery to your hotel.
UPDATE: Not far from the Parc de la Ligue Arabe, taking over the Italian joint Bocca di Lupo, is the tasty tapas of La Esquina. (161 Blvd Rachidi, tel. 0522/229 879, http://www.laesquina.ma, daily 11am – midnight, 150Dh). The outdoor covered terrace and cozy corner where you can avoid the cigarette smoke are (thankfully) still intact. With a little flamenco zest, stop in to snack on a big ensalada español or a citrusy, BBQed John Dory while sipping on the refreshing minty mojito.
If you’re feeling a little heavy from the tajines and couscous, or if you’re a vegetarian looking for a break, rejoice and head to the Garden Bar and Restaurant (corner of Rue Mahmoud Akkad and Rue Commisaire Ladeuil, tel. 0522/200 333, daily 11am-11pm, 70Dh) for a wide selection of salads, bagel sandwiches, and fresh juices. The few rope swing chairs will channel your inner child and the good vibes will leave you feeling light, energetic, and ready to explore. The non-smoking atmosphere is a welcomed retreat from the smoke-heavy restaurants in the city.