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What happened when our very own Sara Veal visited Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium in London... did she have the purrrfect experience?
A few months ago, I found myself in an increasingly familiar position – hunched over a computer, clicking desperately, refreshing my browser, veering between elation and anguish as UNAVAILABLE messages flashed on the screen.
No, I wasn’t attempting to get tickets for Glastonbury. Or McBusted. Or Lady Gaga. Or even Prince, who I’d pretty much do anything for. (Are you reading this, Prince? DM me @naomipenn on Twitter please to discuss future projects and children.) I was trying to book a table at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, London’s very first cat café, Kickstartered last year, and which finally flung its doors open to the public in April.
I had to go. Ever since I heard about the concept of a cat café, which originated in Taiwan but is particularly popular in Japan, I knew it was for me. I LOVE CATS. My parents, at least not until very recently, have never liked them – for my mum, who grew up in the Philippines, they were only slightly better than cockroaches in terms of urban vermin. So I have largely felt cat-deprived for most of my life, and will therefore pet – or attempt to pet – pretty much every feline that crosses my path. One of my favourite things about being an adult is that no one can physically stop me from doing this besides the cats themselves. (I had an absolutely delightful time on holiday recently befriending and cuddling slightly manky stray cats, much to the disapproval of my friends.) So a cat café sounded absolutely perfect. Like heaven! A place where you were specifically encouraged to pet cats! Plus these were rescue cats, so it was also a saintly activity!
Last week, more than three months after feverishly nabbing a booking, it was finally Time. I rounded up seven fellow cat appreciators – well, to be precise, six fellow cat appreciators and one cynical but very curious friend (probably the most catlike of my friends, in fact) – and we excitedly stormed into Lady Dinah’s, ready to Instagram the cats (flash off, of course). We had a mere two hours to gorge ourselves on adorable kitties, vegan tarts and gluten-free lavender cake. (Which was fine, because I’d already booked another table for my birthday in September.)
After we paid our £5 entry and as we sanitised our hands in the pre-cat antechamber filled with various Lady Dinah merchandise and cat curio, a beautiful girl gave us the rundown. No picking up the cats, ever. No bothering sleeping cats. No feeding cats lavender cake or any contraband (ahem, Dreamies) we may or may not have smuggled in our pockets. (I had eaten some jerk chicken shortly before our visit, in the vague hopes of becoming more desirable to the cats. Also out to pre-empt hunger – a girl cannot live on lavender cake and vegan tart alone.)
As we were finally let into the cat-populated portion of Lady Dinah’s, we oohed and ahhed. It was very pretty – think 1940s Brighton tea room, with lots of velvet furnishings, white wooden furniture and pale blue walls. And incredibly cool cat bookshelves lined with Astro-turf that allowed the cats to walk on the walls. We spied two gorgeous cats as we headed towards the stairs, to our reserved space in the basement. But they were sleeping and, remembering our lesson well, we let them be. We were already being so great at this cat café thing.
Once downstairs, we were thrilled to find there was a non-sleeping cat curled up in a box right next to our sofas. I let a friend pet that one while I sought out my own new friend, cat brush in hand. I sat down next to an elegant grey- and-white gentleman who looked serene (but not asleep!). I patted his head gently and he turned to look at me impassively, before getting up with a world-weary air and walking off. This interaction was repeated with every cat I approached. Some simply turned their backs at me and stared longingly at the nearest door.
We soon began to take increasingly longer breaks from this repeated rejection, and focused instead on our cake and catching up, which was lovely. We made jokes about being cat repellers, and the football fanatics amongst us tried not to regret the fact they were in a basement being ignored by cats instead of watching Germany-vs-Brazil (7-1!). We took turns sneaking upstairs to see if the cats there had woken up yet and might like us better. No such luck. At one point, I decided to give the cat-interacting another go and cheerily approached a relatively lively looking cat, with a catnip stick, only to find that another girl was doing exactly the same, but from a different angle. We politely tried to let the other person go first, and came to a standoff until I pointed out that the cat was likely to ignore us anyway. Which it did.
I felt as if I was at a singles event filled with people who don’t actually want to be there. (I have once been that person who doesn’t really want to be there at a singles event, after being snuck in by a promoter friend – so I know the signs all too well.) Like one where half had paid and the other had been bribed. You think you’re all there for the same reason, on a pretty much even playing field – only to find that everyone you confidently approach turns their back on you without a second thought, more interested in getting a drink at the bar. It happens so often that you realise it’s probably not actually personal.
It was disheartening, but it also made perfect sense. Lady Dinah’s is always fully booked and easily 100 different people must visit every day, to see the 11 cats from mid-morning til 10.45pm. They seemed happy but definitely overpetted. Plus, they’re cats. Cats are, to paraphrase my very recently converted to cat-loving mother on her newest best friend cum surrogate grandchild, “their own cats”. That’s what makes them awesome. That’s also why, if you like cats, you should probably give Lady Dinah’s a whirl, but seriously manage your expectations. Enjoy being in a beautiful space filled with beautiful creatures, and know you’re making their lives better by eating cake and drinking tea.
Interesting, as I was writing this, I got an email from Lady Dinah’s cancelling my birthday booking , as they’ve decided to close on Wednesdays from next month and are rethinking their opening hours, in order to allow the cats to rest. No more 8.45pm bookings. Seems like a good plan, more for the cats themselves than the eager humans who long to love and be loved by them for a few hours.
And maybe consider getting your own cat, if it’s at all possible. Ideally from a cat home – I’d recommend Cat’s Protection, particularly the North London branch. You might not think you can provide the ideal home, but there’s bound to be one that’s perfect for you and your space. And living in your garden-less flat is a great improvement on something little better than a cage in even the most loving and ethical of cat homes. That’s what I’m going to be doing in September, instead of chasing around cats that don’t belong to me.
Follow Sara on Twitter @NaomiPenn or read her fabulous blog here.