Eating out is one of the highlights of Marrakech. The place to start is immense, teeming Djemaa el-Fna square, which every evening sees up to 100 food stalls set up with their makeshift kitchens, tables, and chairs and serving counters groaning with a cornucopia of Moroccan dishes. Waiters can be pushy, prices seem a steal until the bill comes as the total mounts with additions you don’t recall ordering: olives, bread, tomato salad, mint tea. Most visitors will experience a meal there once, but there are many other places waiting to be discovered in the souks of the medina and beyond.
It takes no time to escape the crowds and noise of Djemaa el-Fna and then follow the huge blue sign in the metalworkers’ souk to the Zen oasis of this cafe. Behind the tiny door lies a health food diner that incorporates a gift shop, art gallery, roof terraces and a school for henna art where visitors can observe the artists and get a pattern painted on their hand. Run by a local Berber, Rachid Karkouch, and American artist, Lori Gordon, a traveller who ended up staying after a holiday, the cafe opened two years ago. Daily vegetarian and vegan specials include the likes of hummus soup and caramelised pumpkin, while meat-eaters can try the chicken gumbo or grilled turkey brochettes. They also supply fun straw sun hats when it gets too hot on the terrace.
Around the corner from Monsieur Fromage, the tiny grill at Chez Hassan offers a host of different dishes: start of with a bowl of harira, Morocco’s famous tomato, chickpea, lemon and lentil soup, chunky skewers of turkey, fish and chicken sizzle on the charcoal embers, and rather than ordering tagine or couscous, try the speciality rate au viande hachee, lamb spleen stuffed with liver. Sounds scary but then so does haggis, and it tastes delicious. Although there are only a couple of tables inside, a narrow, winding staircase leads to a first-floor dining room and then up to a shady roof terrace.
Just look for the crowds at lunchtime in Souk Ablouh, where half a dozen packed-out stalls form what is know as Méchoui Alley. This place is not for the squeamish but the reward is a plate of the most delicious méchoui (smoke-roasted lamb) you will ever taste. Chez Lamine has been here for more than a century and work begins each morning by lighting the wood in the underground oven. The fire is eventually extinguished and some 40 lamb carcasses are lowered to cook in the embers and smoke. One by one, they are hauled up at lunchtime, carved by the master butcher and served by weight on a piece of paper, eaten by hand with hunks of hot flatbread accompanied by a glass of scalding hot mint tea. Unforgettable.
There have been queues outside the Yves Saint Laurent museum since the day it opened in August 2017 and became an instant Marrakech must-see, alongside the incredible gardens of the adjoining Jardin Majorelle. There are few eating-out options in this residential neighbourhood but the museum has opened an organic cafe inspired by the fashion designer’s Paris workspace. The interior is decorated with Saint Laurent’s sketches, while outside bright yellow tables look out on a cool blue pool. This being YSL-inspired, the prices are on the high side but organic ingredients are used and an excellent couscous (beef, chicken or vegetarian) is prepared.
Marrakech’s former French colonial quarter of Guéliz is a different world from the adjoining medieval medina, but while many of the restaurants here are upmarket, a new address opened last year proposing a “bistronomique” bargain lunch menu. Here, you can taste exciting interpretations of gourmet French cuisine from a talented young Moroccan chef, Manaf El Bloul, using local products, herbs and spices. At noon, an ever-changing menu offers dishes such as line-fished John Dory with grilled red peppers and courgettes, split pea soup with smoked sardines, beef carpaccio with cabbage and sesame, classic tuna tatami with quinoa or ombrina ceviche marinated in matcha tea with orange. Prices are higher at night and reservations are advisable.