Curiouser and Curiouser: L.A.’s First Catfe

This weekend only, Chinatown’s pop-up Catfe offers a visit with furry felines in a delightfully off-kilter environment

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one to pet a kitty, catless Angelenos have had little recourse, particularly if they live in an apartment complex where pets are not allowed. Up until yesterday, this left those of us seeking a little feline companionship with the equally undesirable options of inviting ourselves to dinner at the homes of friends who have cats, morosely scrolling through Petfinder until our vision blurs with tears, or attempting to coax neighborhood strays into momentary encounters of fur-stroking bliss. If you, like this reporter, have exhausted these methods well past the boundaries of good taste, don’t fret. This weekend only, Los Angeles’s first cat café, the inimitably named Catfe, debuts as a pop-up in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza at 727 N. Broadway, where it will be open from 4 to 9 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. You can reserve entry for a twenty-minute visit at a specific time here for $30 per person, or walk up and wait in line for free.

Cat cafes are exactly what they sound like: restaurants serving coffee, tea, and light meals, all with a heaping side of kitties. The concept originated in Tokyo, where Norimasa Hamada opened the first such establishment, Cat’s Café, in 2005. As Hamada explained in a 2010 interview with Vice, “Most Japanese rental apartments prohibit pets. The only ones that allow them are condominium apartments for families. This means that young, single-dwelling workers in their 20s and 30s can’t even think about getting any pets, despite the fact that they’re stressed out and are seeking comfort and companionship of some kind.” In addition to connecting people to therapeutic animal contact, the cafes function as socialization centers for rescued cats, who can grow anxious and stressed in shelters.

For years, cat cafes were a perennial viral favorite, yet another cultural product that illustrated the unique pressures and joys of Japanese society, the kind of thing a certain type of gentle college student told the object of his or her affection about in an attempt at kawaii seduction: Can you imagine, a coffee shop where you can play with friendly cats!

But Tokyo’s not the only place where young people crave close encounters with the kitty kind, and the appeal of the cat café has spread across the globe. In the last ten years, cat cafes have opened across Asia, from South Korea to Malaysia, as well as in Dubai and in nearly every European capital. Madrid has La Gatoteca, Paris Le Café des Chats, Copenhagen Café Miao; in Berlin, dueling catfes Café Katzentempel and Pee Pees Katzencafe battle for supremacy. But while cat cafes are projected to open all over the United States this year, Catfe is L.A.’s first (a San Diego-based cat café hopes to open its doors this fall). The brainchild of graphic designer Carlos Wong, who visited cat cafes while living in Tokyo, Catfe has partnered with Best Friends Animal Society to offer fans a taste of what an L.A. cat café might be like, open for just four days; the fully realized version is still in production, as Catfe’s latest Kickstarter indicates.

In its inaugural opening last night, Catfe was a strange mix of polish and frenzy. Several tiny kittens, not available for play, slept in the storefront’s locked glass display cases, somnolescently enduring the constant photographs taken by patrons outside. In a room crammed with bulky wooden picnic tables and perhaps ten adult felines, there were waitresses in French maid cosplay outfits, complete with white thigh highs, muted hair colors, and clip-in furry ears, but no food or drink to be had (a spectral tray of miniature banh mi sandwiches was spotted before disappearing, as if in mirage).

The cat-admiring hoards came in, carefully manipulating the tall gate just inside the door that serves as the last barrier between Chinatown and Cattown. Several elemental laws of economics were suddenly and efficiently demonstrated: Demand, in the form of cooing visitors, far outstretched supply, as several cats tucked themselves behind cages and into secluded boxes. The tables intended to serve as platforms for the cats became obstacles for those navigating the cramped space in search of a pair of ears to scratch. Giant pump bottles of hand sanitizer were brought out by the costumed helpers, who dispensed helpful tidbits such as “Amanda’s feeling shy today.”

The preferred topic of conversation seemed to be the cats awaiting the patrons at home, apparently inadequate succor on their keepers’ great cat thirst. Standing there, bereft of cat, watching everyone wave their phone cameras at avoidant felines, it was easy to feel snarky, even disappointed. But then, just before it was time to leave, this reporter briefly held a large black tom named Tom, who gamely bore the contact with something resembling a purr. The room receded, the concept proved itself. We cuddled.