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Marrakesh's Stylish Transformation

Medina vendors selling their wares.

Photo: John Kernick

With its booming hotels and riads, Marrakesh’s restaurant scene is keeping pace, but it helps to know where to go, as new places make their big splash, then drown just as quickly. One of my favorites is Le Tobsil, where owner Christine Rio offers a prix fixe feast of Moroccan dishes, including moist pastilla (pigeon pie), lamb or chicken tagine (stew), couscous, and dessert, all served at candlelit tables in an arcaded riad, with Gnaoua musicians playing softly in the background.

On the southern edge of the medina, in the former Jewish quarter known as the Mellah, is Le Tanjia, the brainchild of Marrakshi restaurateur Nourredine Fakir. This multilevel restaurant pays homage to its location with antique menorahs and historic photographs of the area. Belly dancers perform tableside while you sample tender beef tanjia—named for the narrow earthenware pot in which it is slow-cooked. The scene is more sedate at the medina haunt Le Foundouk, where the décor—gigantic spindly chandeliers; metal sconces—outshines the menu of Moroccan, French, and Thai dishes. And every visitor to Marrakesh has to try Dar Yacout, a medina institution. Designed in the early 1990’s by American expat architect Bill Willis, this fantasy palace—shiny tadelakt (polished plaster) walls, scalloped columns, and striped turrets—has influenced Moroccan interiors ever since. The standard-issue Moroccan menu is less memorable than the theatricality of the presentation.

For a light lunch, stop at Un Déjeuner à Marrakech, a cool new restaurant with an attractive staff on the riad Zitoun Jdid street, a buzzing shopping strip I’ve loved for years. In Guéliz, head to Grand Café de la Poste, where you could almost be in Indochina, circa 1950, sitting under slow-turning ceiling fans on a vast bamboo-shaded veranda. It is popular with French expats, who treat it as their own private club.

Marrakesh offers plenty of sizzle after dark—from funky clubs like African Chic, in Guéliz, with live bands, to Hivernage’s ultracool Comptoir, a slick lounge that features belly dancers in Bollywood-style production numbers. Théâtro, the formerly sedate supper club of the Hôtel Es Saadi, where Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker performed, is now a dance-till-dawn spot.

My favorite nighttime hideaway is the roof terrace of Kosybar, in the Mellah, which plays loungy Brazilian music. Having a nightcap here and looking out on the salmon-colored walls of the ancient Badi Palace—topped with storks’ nests—you experience the essence of Marrakesh now: the ease with which this worldly desert crossroads accepts and mixes past and present, classic and cutting-edge.

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