Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium opens this weekend, so it seemed only right that I stopped by for a tea and a scone ahead of opening day — 1 March.
I was greeted by an exhausted Lauren Pears, proprietress of Lady Dinah’s, who has successfully reached the end of a lengthy development period. It’s been a challenging 18-month journey rewarded with 7,000 bookings in the first 24 hours. “I think I’m a bit stunned still,” she told me. “It’s been a lot of work for a really long time. I think I have to pinch myself to check it’s actually still happening.”
Walking into the cafe on Bethnal Green Road in London’s Shoreditch, I was first struck by the legitimacy of its aesthetic. In a pocket of the capital known for its pop-up shops and a rough-and-ready approach to spontaneous commerce, Lady Dinah’s feels like the permanent fixture it’s intended to be. It’s a real cafe, with a Starbucks-size coffee-making area busied by baristas and serving staff.
Between the front entrance and the cats themselves there are three doors. Between the second and third is an airlock of sorts, with wash basins, a bathroom, handwash, disinfectant and paper towels. An attendant lays down the ground rules for how not to handle cats (don’t fuss them if they’re sleeping; some don’t like to be picked up; no flash photography) and ensures everyone cleans they’re hands before entering or leaving.
Upstairs in the first part of the cafe is a very English-looking tearoom. Take the cats away and you’re as good as in a family-owned tearoom somewhere in Derbyshire, with scones, clotted cream, bone china and loose leaf tea. Except there are cats there — a dozen, in fact. One of them is called “Moo”. There’s a four-foot hamster-wheel-but-for-cats, grassy turfed steps climbing up the walls for cats to sleep on, a number of tiny wooden beds with cat-sized mattresses and a podium in the windows that looks out onto the East London street beyond.
Take the stairs down and you enter a room with a different aesthetic. The feeling of being in a classic Derbyshire tearoom remains, but it’s a tea room inside the manor house of an eccentric cat lover. Mismatched sofas and chairs are charming alongside the china display cabinets and an assortment of tables. Some might deem the choice of seats unconsidered, plucked last-minute from an auction perhaps; others will find its inconsistency homely and comfortable.
Cat toys and beds adorn the floors and the cats seem very happy, even with 20 people in the room with them. There are plenty of spaces for tired animals to escape attention, and indeed some had taken advantage of this; whereas active cats skirt the floors looking for attention and the next set of hands adventuring for a cuddle. It’s a sight I was very pleased to see. As an animal lover the last thing I wanted to discover was a room full of nervous, frightened cats confused by excited patrons. “I do know there are people who have concerns about a business like this and I think they are valid concerns,” said Pears. “I just hope they will be open-minded enough to pop in and see that our cats are happy and that we’re doing our very best to keep them that way.”
I’ve visited a number of “traditional” cat cafes in Tokyo, Japan, and there are a number of similarities and differences. In Japan, the cat cafes often feel more like cat playrooms that happen to serve drinks. Lady Dinah’s is the opposite — it feels like a cafe that just happens to be full of cats. As well, a number of Japanese cat cafes can be overwhelming with their brightly coloured decor, cute “kawaii” adornments lavishly covering the walls and floors. Lady Dinah’s is more reserved; it’s less “OMG cats are so cute and amazing and ooh did you see his little nose twitch just then? SO CUTE!”, and more “Ah, hello sir. I see you’re eating a scone. Would you like a cat next to you? Let me fetch you one. And some more jam, if you please.”
It’s a delightful place; a well-executed oddity. If it’s successful it’s unlikely it will ever be able to lose its inherent evocations of novelty and quirkiness, but from a business perspective that’s only ever going to be in its favour. The sheer word-of-mouth potential via social media is enormous — who doesn’t want take a selfie with a cat in a cafe. Pears will likely never need to advertise as long as people are still excited to post pictures of themselves to Facebook.
With 7,000 bookings already made, and supporters of the crowdfunding campaign getting first dibs on access, getting in will be tough for a couple of months, Pears noted. But when you do, you’re in for a treat.
You will be able to hear Lauren Pears discussing Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium in an interview to be published in The Wired.co.uk Podcast episode 164 next week. Subscribe for free in iTunes or via RSS so you don’t miss out.
This post was originally published on this site