Visitors to Marrakech have plenty of dining options to choose from. Up until the late 1990s, choices were limited to Moroccan, European, or a fusion of the two, but the recent rise in both visitors and foreign residents has diversified the city's gastronomic scene, which is fast becoming a major attraction in its own right.

Setting and ambience play an important part in Marrakech's dining scene. Those looking for romantic candlelit dinners -- complete with world lounge music, rose petal-strewn fountains, and incense-filled air -- will be spoiled for choice. However, if your preference or budget makes you hanker for something a bit livelier or cheaper, there are still enough options.

I strongly recommend joining the evening spectacular on Jemaa el Fna for at least one meal. Some travelers refuse to eat here, regarding the hygiene standards below par, but compared to many of the cheap to midrange restaurants in town, the kitchens here, visible for all to see, may actually be cleaner. My advice is to try it, even if you only indulge in a bowl of traditional harira soup. However, should the smell of up to 100 food stalls simultaneously cooking everything from couscous to sheep's brains be too much for you, there are numerous terrace cafe-restaurants overlooking the square offering reasonably priced Moroccan and European dishes. Marrakech's restaurants are located both inside and outside the medina walls. Some, especially those in the more residential corners of the medina, can be a bit difficult to find, so it's best to ask the restaurant to send an escort to accompany you from your accommodations. Outside the medina, many of the better restaurants are located on or near avenue Mohammed V and boulevard Mohammed Zerktouni. All of those recommended here are relatively easy to locate on your own and are not too far off the main streets.

Dining with a View

At some stage of your meanderings in the medina, you'll probably want to stop and rest at one of the cafe-restaurants overlooking the constant activity on Jemaa el Fna. All of them are open every day, usually from 9am to 11pm. Here's a rundown of the most prominent:

Café-Restaurant Argana -- As much a landmark as an eating establishment, the Argana is just steps from the action. The upstairs terrace restaurant -- you'll usually have to order a meal to be able to sit here -- affords a fantastic view of the square from the tables closest to the railing, while the cafe downstairs offers sidewalk seating. The food, everything from a mint tea and pastry to a three-course dining experience, is not half bad, either. Located in the northern souk on the side of the square. tel. 0524/445350.

Les Terrasses de L'Alhambra -- This slick operation is one of the newer places on the square. The ground floor is set aside for drinks and ice cream, with comfy tables both on the pavement and in the air-conditioned interior. The open-air terrace upstairs is a good spot if you're looking for a quick meal of pizza, pasta, or salad. In the far northeast corner, next to the Qessabin Mosque. tel. 0524/427550.

Le Marrakchi -- Another relative newcomer to the square, the two-story Le Marrakchi is dominated by traditional zellij on the first floor and panoramic windows on the second. The young owner, Noureddine Fakir, originally from Casablanca, seems to have gotten both the ambience and the menu just right, as witnessed by the usual line of waiting diners. The decor includes low, comfortable chairs, wooden shutters, and lots of candles, while two set menus feature local specialties. This air-conditioned restaurant serves alcohol and opens at noon. In the northeast corner. tel. 0524/443377.

Café de France -- Thanks to three levels of seating, an unpretentious atmosphere, and later hours (10 or 11pm in winter, midnight or 1am in summer), the "old dame" of the square is still as popular as ever with both locals and visitors alike. The ground floor has plenty of seating both inside and out, with separate areas for dining (the food is nothing special, however) and (nonalcoholic) drinking. Located on the east side of the square and close to both the Qessabin Mosque and the turbaned herbs and potions vendors, this is my favorite people-watching spot. The two upper levels are usually fairly quiet and offer a relatively secluded setting. No phone.

La Place -- Inconspicuous at ground level, this restaurant's covered second-floor terrace is a hidden gem for those searching for the perfect spot to take in the sunset. Although relatively small, with room for only about six tables, the terrace offers a great view looking westward across Jemaa el Fna to the Koutoubia Mosque. The restaurant serves three set menus of standard Moroccan fare, but you're welcome to have just a drink. Located next door to Café de France. No phone.

Restaurants N'Zahia & Toubkal -- These two outdoor pavement-level restaurants sit side by side in the far southeast corner of the square and are especially popular for their no-frills breakfasts consisting of croissants, pain au chocolat, and fresh khübz, msemmen, and baghrir. Be warned that it can get hot here under the midday sun. No phone.

Les Premices -- This is the newest cafe-restaurant on the square and is a definite step up in class. Les Premices offers indoor and outdoor seating at its ground-floor cafe and its terrace restaurant, and is a good choice for everything from a short mint tea break to a romantic dinner. The reasonably priced menu (in French and English) offers Moroccan standards such as couscous and tagine, as well as a range of seafood, meat dishes, pastas, and pizzas. Located in the southeast corner. tel. 0524/391970.

Hotel CTM & Le Grand Balcon du Café Glacier -- These two old stalwarts provide arguably the best views of Jemaa el Fna, and don't they know it -- aside from the occasional splash of paint, everything has stayed the same for the last 10 years. Their balconies provide prime views of the extravaganza unfolding below; the CTM also offers the most uninterrupted view of the Koutoubia Mosque. It can get a little crowded up here at the end of the day as people jostle for that perfect sunset picture. Both places serve only drinks (nonalcoholic) on their balconies, and patrons must place an order to gain access. The Le Grand Balcon du Café Glacier also has a pavement-level cafe where it serves a basic breakfast. Located side-by-side on the southern edge of the square. No phone.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.