Sanae Sentissi, the owner of Casablanca Cafe, moved into the blue house at Fourth and Grant streets before the area became known for its ethnic restaurants. But no matter where she lived, she couldn't completely take herself away from Morocco.
Her husband at the time helped some of their friends open Puccini's, another ethnic restaurant on Fourth Street. After he quit working at Puccini's, they opened Casablanca in 1994, bringing a taste of Morocco to Fourth Street.
Sentissi was one of the first on Fourth Street to share ethnic culture through cuisine, helping make the tree-lined avenue the ethnic restaurant row that Bloomington knows today.
"There was only Siam House back then," she says.
Casablanca is indeed a little piece of history and a little touch of culture in the heart of Bloomington. With its unique food, candle-lit tables, Moroccan music, homey environment and colorful chandeliers, this little restaurant is more than a place to go for dinner.
Casablanca is the story of Sanae Sentissi.
"It is her," says Sharon Pollock, co-owner of Casablanca and longtime friend of Sentissi's. "It is an extension of her. She has a strong identity with the restaurant."
Sentissi chose to open a Moroccan restaurant for one simple reason. "Because I'm Moroccan," she says with an accent and a laugh.
She grew up in Morocco and lived there for the majority of her life. She speaks the Moroccan language, which is a blend of Arabic, French and Spanish. Although not a result of her heritage, she also speaks sign language. Her dark, curly haired, young son was born deaf and communicates mostly through signs.
Eighteen years ago, before her son was born, Sentissi moved from Morocco to New York. Later, some of her friends from New York moved to Bloomington to attend IU.
When Sentissi and her family came to visit them one year, they found themselves staying longer than expected. They fell in love with the town, and after only three years of living in the United States, decided to move again.
A year later, they opened the restaurant out of their home and named it Casablanca, after the capital of Morocco.
The first employees of the restaurant numbered only four, plus Sentissi's two-year-old daughter, who now works at Casablanca. With the help of her husband and two other "workers," she made the restaurant a success. No one had a specialized job. They all helped each other meet the common goal.
"I did everything," Sentissi says. "I cooked, I served, I dishwashed. I did everything. It's like a family business."
Six months after opening, she moved out of Casablanca and into a new home. However, the home-like environment of Casablanca didn't change.
"It's like a family," says Peter Lawrence, a server of seven years. "Everyone is treated with a personal touch."
Although she is professional and business-like in her dealings with the restaurant, Sentissi keeps the family feel with her employees through her kindness and support.
According to Pollock, she can be strict at times, but she also knows when she can joke around and make others laugh.
Sentissi not only keeps a personal touch with her employees, she also shares this touch with her customers. Aside from the homey and family-like environment that welcomes customers, Sentissi shares the Moroccan food of her culture, which is influenced by Berber, Moorish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Arab, Andalusian, French and African cultures.
Fresh fish, unique spices and pure olive oil are only a few directives she gives the cooks. However, if customers wished to live a vegan lifestyle, then Sentissi would adapt.
Adapting is something Sentissi has done a lot of lately. This past August, she obtained two new partners. Co-owners Sharon and Geoffrey Pollock are two of her friends. Together these three hope to improve the restaurant so they can share more of the "Moroccan Artemisia decor."
Although belly dancers perform at the restaurant every once in a while, this will soon be a weekly tradition. On certain occasions, they also will have henna tattoo artists. This is a type of tattooing, which is done with herbs and springs from the Moroccan culture.
"This is going to be for generations," Sentissi says about her restaurant. "That's what our goal. To keep it for as long as we can."
Morgan Brown can be reached at .