California is the home of celluloid and now digital dreams. Since I’m a movie lover, especially of the old classics, I would naturally be attracted to a film theme restaurant. When my daughter Heidi suggested the small and cozy Casablanca Restaurant in Venice for Mother’s Day, I couldn’t wait. I’ve been eating Mexican cuisine there since the 1990s, although not frequently enough.
As the name suggests, the restaurant celebrates the 1943 Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman film. A poster of Bogart, dressed in a trench coat, watched over our champagne brunch, which we shared with Heidi’s entertaining friend Wayne and his delightful mother Carolyn. They had never been to this charming eatery.
Owner, Carlos Raphael Haro, Jr. (his father, Carlos Haro, Sr. opened the restaurant in 1980) has added to his large collection of Casablanca memorabilia over the years. We were in a booth with an old movie projector from the film in a wood and glass box on one side. All the walls in this cozy place are covered with framed photos, wall paintings or framed paintings of scenes from the movie. The ladies’ restroom has Ingrid Bergman on the door; the men’s room door says Humphrey Bogart.
As word spread around Los Angeles about the restaurant’s theme, the owner received all kinds of objects having to do with the film. A page of the script, for instance. And Carlos would look around for extra souvenirs to put on display in the restaurant. There’s even a small piano that’s a duplicate of the one used in the movie to play the famous, “As Time Goes By.”
The food is also unique: homemade flour tortillas are made on a brick stove in front of customers. The tortillas are probably 12 inches in diameter (although I didn’t measure them) and are accompanied by an unusually tasty green salsa that has little chunks of cheese in it. Since they are known for their calamari steak, I indulged. I opted for the champagne, however, instead of their amazing selection of tequilas.
Since I had decided to write about our dining adventure, I interviewed the amiable owner and he gave us a tour of the restaurant. Turns out he is a writer like me and has written three novels in Spanish, which, according to their website, “incorporate Mexican folklore, cuisine and music.”
I remembered the days when the waiters all wore the typical Morrocan red fez hat and asked what had happened to eliminate that fashion statement! I had heard they couldn’t order the hats any more, but Carlos told me the real reason was that busy waiters would sweat too much under the close-fitting chapeau!
The waiters, by the way, were an extra bonus: they were friendly, attentive, and aimed to please. The expression on our waiter’s face expressed humor and reminded me a bit of comedian Bill Dana’s famous character, Jose Jimenez on TV in the 1960s.