The restaurant with no food

It doesn't work like a normal restaurant. There's no menu. In fact, there's not even any food. It's BYO everything.

There's also no sign. Well, none that I can see. It's just a doorway in an alley, the whole place shrouded in smoke from an open fire that's about to grill my sardines to absolute perfection. To make it here, you would just have to know it existed.

(It's like trying to find a bar in Melbourne, only in Arabic.)

In the dim interior, the outlines of people hunched over small tables bob and sway, hands moving rapidly from plates to mouths and back again. There's a large group crowded around the grill in the alley: the Moroccan version of the Aussie barbie, the men all no doubt offering unwanted culinary advice to the guy in charge.

We haven't arrived empty-handed. Tahah, our guide, is hanging onto a plastic bag full of fresh seafood. There are sardines in there, plus fish I've never seen before: one with an eel-like tail, another big, meaty beast, and some smaller, bonier specimens.

We picked up our haul from the market a few blocks away in the old town of Essaouira. As with the restaurant, without Tahah we never would have found it.

Tahah is a guide for Intrepid. For the past week or so he's been ferrying us around Morocco, from the bright lights of Marrakech to the bright stars of a desert camp. He's Tuareg, and underwent a miraculous transformation on our way to the Saharan sands a few days ago, changing from his shirt and trousers to a traditional robe, his demeanour softening just as the ground underneath our feet did.

He's carried that relaxed attitude back to coastal Morocco and today is in the mood to treat us, his passengers, to the best food Essaouria has to offer. Only thing is, we have to source it ourselves.

The fish market is in the centre of the walled old town, a bustling little open square with the distinct reek of yesterday's catch. You get a sniff of it as you walk through the tight alleyways nearby, the rows of technicolour spices being pushed by the vendors failing to mask something fishy inside.


Step around a corner and there it is, a mass of tiled benches with the morning's haul laid out for sale in the sun. There's a guy stripping skin off whole octopuses and packing them in salt; another vendor deftly fillets fish and flicks the entrails into a bin.

Shoppers haggle in Arabic over the prices.

Tahah has done this before. He strides around pointing out his preferred species, watching as it's packed into bags and handed over, money being passed back and forth. Then he waves to us clueless onlookers and takes us back into the maze of alleys, winding around to a main thoroughfare before veering off to the left, down another tiny passageway clouded in smoke. This is the restaurant. Its speciality is fish – cooking fish, that is. The procurement is up to you.

How would we have known about this without Tahah? We wouldn't. Say what you want about travelling on tours, but local knowledge like this makes up for the occasional grumbling about enforced early starts.

Tahah talks to the guy running the restaurant, handing over his plastic bag as he sets out our order. We take a seat in the tiled dining area – it's not fancy here, just a couple of bare tables with plastic chairs, an open kitchen to one side.

We can see the big fish being hacked up, then battered and fried. Some of the smaller fish are thrown into a pan. The sardines are laid out whole on a wire grill and taken to the coal fire in the alley, where they'll be charred and smoked as the guys stand around and give their advice.

After a few minutes, the food begins arriving. Huge platters of battered fish are slapped on the table. A plate stacked high with grilled fillets follows.

Not only does this restaurant not have food, it doesn't have cutlery. We're doing this the old-fashioned way, digging digits into piping-hot fish. It feels primitive, and right.

The hunks of battered fish are good. The grilled fillets are excellent. But the piece de resistance is the sardines, which are tipped from the coals straight to a plate.

You have to separate bone and flesh with your fingers, or pick up whole carcasses and gnaw straight into them. It's fantastic – juicy and smoky. Food at its most basic and best.

The family across from us has got the eating skill down, the perfectly cleaned skeletons piled in front of them a testament to it. Our style is a little more haphazard.

There's flesh and bones and used napkins strewn across the restaurant by the time we finally leave, back out into the smoky alley, trailing behind Tahah, our man in the know. There'll be another restaurant tonight, Tahah promises – another local secret.

This one might even have food.