Like a firecracker threatening to explode, Mike Richardson flits from customer to customer until he has greeted them all. A smile here, a hug or handshake there, he doesn’t miss a millisecond of what goes on behind him at the bar of Café Clock in Marrakesh, of which he is official puppetmeister. Or owner, if you prefer.
To run one of urban Morocco’s most offbeat eateries takes a slice of panache, a pinch of exuberance and magisterial management skills. This isn’t a restaurant like most but more of a cultural café, a meeting place where Moroccans and foreigners can sit together and remake the world, an oasis in the maelstrom that can be Marrakesh.
Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani is on stage tonight, storytelling in the local Darija language. His arms wave and fly and his face creases successively into worry, surprise, concern and exhilaration. I may not have understood his words, but I understood everything.
Through an interpreter we learned of a hammam and of ghosts and vegetable names that rhyme and of good and evil and punishment and, as in every fine story, we were served a moral about the triumph of good over that other thing.
Hajj Ahmed teaches the younger ones, the apprentice storytellers who don’t want Morocco’s traditions to disappear into a nest of TV sets and iPads.
With its fusion cuisine, expressive wall art and afternoon cooking and exercise classes, Café Clock might seem an odd place for the preservation of oral history, yet the mixture seems to work.
“We all help each other here,” said Tariq Hadine, Café Clock’s chef, “It’s not like other places. All these activities bring people together, all kinds of people. They come to eat camel burger.”
Whoa. Camel burger?
“Why not?” asks Mike. “You eat cow, and traditionally eating camel makes you healthier in Moroccan culture. It’s the perfect burger.”
I thought back to my night under the stars of the Saraha and to my camel Hammadi and in a fit of cowardice ordered a fusion couscous, fighting the potent whiff of grilled meat wafting up from the kitchen. I may not have dared but the idea intrigues me, as it apparently does the hundreds of visitors who visit solely to boast they have sampled camel burger.
Looking around the rooftop terrace as the red sun dips below the cluttered skyline, I see Moroccan women in headscarves chatting on a sofa in a corner, a gay couple conspiring at a small table, a young girl reading by herself, undisturbed, and a middle-aged American couple whispering about the menu. “Camel? Really?”
Moroccan, yet not.
Café Clock is Mike’s brainchild, an islet of diversity in the midst of two of Morocco’s most traditional cities (the first, the original Café Clock is in Fez, named after a 14th-century clock found in the house). There was once a private dining version of the café in the holy town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun but that has now become Mike’s exquisite home away from home.
Little had prepared the 41-year-old Yorkshireman for a career as a restaurateur in North Africa – not his years as Maître d’ at the Wolseley and the Ivy in London, not his degree in the History of Design, although both experiences would feed into his vision of restaurant meets theater and art gallery.
Both the cafés in Marrakesh and Fez are wildly popular, quirky enough to remain undefinable, having been labeled everything from ice cream bar to backpacker eatery to expat hub to cross-cultural café. It is all of those, and whatever else you want to make it. It is a home away from home because Café Clock is, after all, where Mike spends most of his time, he of the zippy laughter, the firecracker about to go off.
And behind me the room erupts into laughter.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- In Marrakesh this is the perfect place to unwind, especially if you’ve had too much tajine, seen too many carpets, and have a deep need to get away from the main square of the city.
- Café Clock is the ideal hangout for solo women. You might be noticed, but you’ll feel perfectly at home and won’t be hassled. If you’re in the mood, you’ll probably make some new friends, too.
- It is a 10-15 minute walk through the Marrakesh Kasbah from Djemaa el Fna.
- Connect here with Café Clock.