472 Third Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Autumn in Paris! I’m in a French-feeling patio with about eight wood-slat tables under a big tree. Fall leaves saucer down in the breeze. We’re in the Gaslamp’s Chinatown area at 3rd and Island.
“The Cat Café,” says a sign.
“Time spent with cats is never wasted: Sigmund Freud,” says another.
Must be real cats inside.
Another sign says spending time with them costs $8. But what can a Freud fan do? Inside, I notice a girl talking to a cat through an internal window. She’s the café barista, Jackie. I ask if they do lunch.
“We have drinks and some food,” she says, tentatively. She leads me round into a small kitchen counter, with a big ol’ list of teas and coffees and blends, plus, in a drinks cooler, some sandwiches.
I was really hoping for something hot. But the cat thing’s got me curious. So first, a cuppa hot chai. English Breakfast. Two bucks. Then we’re looking at, okay, sandwiches. Maui Deli Sandwich, with turkey, ham, muenster cheese, mayo, mustard, in sweet Hawaiian bread ($6), or a tuna salad sandwich, with albacore tuna, mayo, dill pickles, celery, mustard, carrots, relish, parsley, and muenster cheese on multigrain bread (also $6).
Then they have smaller items: The “Eggcellent Snack Pack” with two hard-boiled eggs, cheddar cheese, crackers and a small bunch of grapes ($5), and the “Hummus Snack” with “house-made roasted red pepper hummus,” plus raw veggies, and soft pita bread wedges ($4).
At these prices? Can’t lose. I get one of each snack. Plus, the tuna salad sandwich, just in case. And Jackie says yes, I can eat it in the cat lounge. “And seeing you’re buying food, you don’t have to pay the $8 entry fee,” she says.
I head up the passage and turn right through one door, then another, and into the cat lounge. Talk about security. For the cats, I’m guessing.
“Is this your first time?” asks this guy. Tony Wang, the manager.
“Definitely,” I say.
“Well, we ask that you help keep this a calm environment for the cats. Don’t pick them up. Give them space if they become agitated. Pictures are okay, but no flash, and no phones. Oh, and Vicki and Lotus, that black pair? They’re blind.”
Wow. I go to a table and lay out my plastic containers and tea, then look around. There seem to be half a dozen cats in nests on the floor or walls around the room. Couple of customers are playing with a cat at their table. One of them says she looks after 20 cats. “It began with two, then they started having babies,” she says.
“All of our cats are spayed, and we don’t let them out,” says Tony.
The two blind little kitties play with each other in and out of a kind of flap box. You’d never know they were blind.
I launch lunch with the cheese-crackers-egg-grapes combo. I splay open the little packs of salt and pepper and grab the first peeled egg. Mmm. Forgotten how satisfying it is to go chomping through the white to the crumbly yolk, and to dip into salt and pepper. Then I bust open the Tillamook medium cheddar and stick it on the crackers and start rotating bites and finish each rotation with a big red juicy grape.
Now I open up the hummus snack pack and scoop out the red pepper hummus with the soft pita wedges. Delish, plus we have young peas in their pods, mini tomatoes, carrots, and a bud of broccoli. I dip ’em all in the hummus. You forget how filling and fulfilling eating simple can be. Honestly, by the time I’m halfway through the second egg, I’m just about beat. Beat, but not bloated.
I will get bloated if I start in on the tuna salad sandwich. And meanwhile cats are coming my way. I stroke. They purr. I relax. There’s a name for this: “Purr Therapy.” Honest. They say purrs come out as 40-120 hertz low frequency vibrations. When we humans hear it, it starts to lower our blood pressure. It’s ancient. Also, this helps in promoting bone strength, healing muscles, tendons and ligament injuries, stress, and can reduce the risk of heart attack by 40 percent. The power of a cat’s purr! I mean, what do I know? But that’s what I heard.
Is the cat café idea popular? Oh yes. Hundreds have opened up worldwide since the first one started in Taiwan 20 years ago, with over 150 now in Japan and 72 here in the US. Growth driven by cat-deprived city folks whose landlords say, “No pets!”
By the time I finish off my second egg and even enjoy my broccoli (once I’ve severely dunked it in hummus), we’re all chatting like old friends. The cats seem more relaxed, too. Now Lotus, one of the blind sisters, races up an artificial palm to the ceiling. “She doesn’t know she can’t see,” says Tony.
All in all, it has been a real refresher course in simple tastes and bargain prices. And the nice thing is, these were all rescue cats. You can adopt them.
I take my tuna salad sandwich with me. Polish it off a few hours later. Thing I like: the significant crunch of celery in the mix. I’m interested in celery, ever since I saw Anthony Bourdain’s chef buddy Eric Ripert tell him celery’s job isn’t so much to give flavor as to release the flavors of other ingredients. Could be my imagination, but I swear this celery’s flaring the taste of the tuna, and the sweetness of the bread.
On my way out, I notice a set of half-size traffic lights on the wall. I look at Tony. “That’s our ‘yacker tracker,’” he says. “It measures noise level. If people’s chat gets loud enough to disturb the cats, it goes to red. That’s when we have to ask folks to cool it. We’re all about the cats here.”