Jemaa el Fna in the heart of Marrakech's medina

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Frankly, there's no excuse to eat anywhere else in Marrakech. Sure, you can find fancier--and more expensive--food in an indoor tourist restaurant, but the Jemaa's menu selection can't be beat and the entertainment far outstrips any tourist's belly dancer. Admittedly, there are pickpockets and hustlers to beware of, and an occasional beggar may plead to be treated to a bowl of soup, but it's a small price to pay to dine in the center of a North African fantasy.

Spend a few days in Marrakech and you'll soon stake out your favorite stalls. A good technique is to look for the most crowded ones. On the other hand, my favorite harira stall isn't the busiest, but the toothless, old soup maker has a generous smile and always gives me an extra large side dish of olives. I can sit there undisturbed for an hour or more, lost in the intoxicating Moroccan medley of sights, sounds and smells.

Each evening at dusk, Marrakech's famous carnivalesque square is seamlessly transformed into the biggest, most entertaining outdoor café in the world. Snake charmers, storytellers, herbalists, hustlers and acrobats share the open space with row after row of numbered open-air kitchen booths. Beneath the flickering light of kerosene lamps, fires are built in charcoal grills, and fresh meats and vegetables are laid out for inspection. When the red African sun sets behind the snow-capped Atlas mountains, throngs of locals and travelers converge for a feast and a festival worthy of a sheik.

Succulent grilled lamb and chicken, couscous, tagines, fried fish, tiny beef sausages, vegetables, salads, soups, unlimited mint tea and honey-soaked desserts beckon from the stalls. Before you know it, you find yourself seated on a bench with a freshly prepared plate of food before you. Move on to another stall for a second course, and a third, and a fourth. Or, stay put and marvel as plate after plate is brought to you on command.

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