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Rick’s – a Cape Town classic
Here’s looking at this Mother City institution: a go-to spot for top drinks and tasty nosh
If you’ve ever seen the movie Casablanca you’ve probably fantasised about starring in a Morocco-based love affair of your own that plays out in an iconic gin joint (that one in all the towns in all the world), or you’ve dreamt of sipping something on the rocks while a Sam-like character tinkles ‘As Time Goes By’ on the piano.
Even if you haven’t seen the classic 1942 flick, you’ve likely had a hankering for that one go-to spot where you can score your favourite drink, feast on your favourite food and return over and over again like it’s a second home. We’re talking about somewhere that’s a proverbial safe haven for work-weary locals that also happens to be one of the best night spots in town (much like how Rick’s Café in the movie is a happening hideaway for evacuees awaiting passage to America).
Enter Per Menkö, the owner of the Mother City’s very own version of the famous Rick’s Café Américain, and though he’s not Humphrey Bogart or Rick Blaine himself, the seasoned chef and restaurant owner has afforded Capetonians and out-of-towners their own Casablanca experience on Park Road just off Kloof Street.
On the night my partner and I visit this Mother City institution, it’s a characteristically cold winter evening, with the wind swirling in mini tornadoes and wailing loudly through the trees. All of that somehow disappears as soon as we step through the doors of the restaurant and get struck with a warmth that lands straight on the cheeks, the jovial hum of diners and drinkers filling the dark-wooded room around us with an indescribable energy.
“It’s my favourite movie,” Per says when I ask about the eatery’s inspiration. “The script was voted the best in the 20th century, and it’s got it all – revenge, love, drama.” And, he adds, he chose the motif because he spent a few months in the ‘70s travelling around Morocco in a VW van.
The eatery is housed in a 100-year-old converted Victorian building and basically transports those who enter to a North African oasis complete with ornamental lanterns hanging from above and different coloured hookahs lining the extremely impressive bar. Naturally, there’s a TV screening the black-and-white Ingrid Bergman and Bogart film in case anyone didn’t quite catch the Casablanca reference.
The deceptively large space has many different nooks and three flame-roaring fireplaces interspersed between diners, and I imagine that during the warmer months its rooftop bar is simply abuzz with sun-soakers and colourful cocktail drinkers.
The joint is definitely one of the top drinking spots in Cape Town, both because of the vibrant, happy atmosphere and the fact that there are more than 500 beverage options – from wines, whiskies and apéritifs to brandies, beers and cocktails – to suit every drinker on any budget. As Per proudly notes, you can get a two-for-R27 el Jimador tequila shot special, but you can also get a single shot of the pricier stuff for up to R225 during happy hour from 3pm to 7pm. Speaking of tequila, Rick's boasts more than 30 different varieties.
While I decide to go for a local Shiraz, my American dining companion, who spends several mesmerised minutes looking at the multi-page drinks menu, is happy to find a whisky from the States that he’s been missing since coming to South Africa. To quote Bogart’s very last line in the movie, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Once the matter of what to drink is finally out of the way, we turn our attention to our stomachs and the food menu, which is surprisingly diverse – it has dishes to seemingly suit any occasion. A quick survey of the eatery reveals a table of girlfriends on a catch-up dinner date, each of whom orders a different kind of burger (including ostrich and veggie), and a large group of twenty-somethings nearby sharing several plates of tapas, with morsels like olives, calamari and beef carpaccio being passed around. My companion and I decide that, in keeping with the Moroccan spirit of the restaurant and to warm up from the inside, we’ll try the famous Rick’s tagines. My partner pairs his beloved whisky with a fragrant and rich lamb tagine with dried apricots, almonds and walnuts, while I opt for the Spanish-influenced seafood stew, which is generously populated with mussels, linefish, calamari and prawns.
The eclectic menu is curated and designed by Per himself, and with cooking experience from all over the world, including a stint as executive chef at the Victoria & Alfred Hotel and time at the Mount Nelson, the Bavarian-born entrepreneur could have gone for fancier, fine dining type of fare for Rick’s. But the truth is, he preferred to design an accessible, uncomplicated menu with honest, good food for Capetonians to enjoy. Plus, he adds, “I’m a hands-on guy and I enjoy being in the front. The main thing is that people want to come back and bring their friends for sundowners, for entertainment or for lunch.” It’s all very Rick Blaine isn’t it?
There is no more room for eating and drinking, and we’ve stretched out the evening for as long as it can go, so it’s time to say a fond farewell (for now) to Rick’s. Out in the reality of the rainy street I’m already fantasising about the next time I come here and I’m thinking that, just like an old favourite movie, a visit to Rick’s Café Américain is both a comfort and a pleasure.
Here’s looking at you kid.
Tip: Not many people know about Rick’s upper deck, which is an excellent spot for sundowners in the summer time thanks to the stunning view of Table Mountain. Also, Rick’s has free Wi-fi!
The Bill: Prices are reasonable – tapas range from R56 to R105 (exception: a platter costs R165), while mains range from R95 to R215 (exception: a 300-g fillet steak with veggies and a starch costs R245). As mentioned, there really is a wide variety of drinks to suit all kinds of pockets.
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