Getting into the Meow Parlour cat café is a little bit like getting into a very exclusive restaurant. You wait in line in a vestibule just outside the door. A discerning door girl asks if you have a reservation. You can see everybody inside having a amazing time with a bunch of cool cats, but they're just out of reach. Finally, when you make your way inside, take off your shoes, and douse your hands with sanitizer, you're allowed to join the party.
We've been trying to go to a cat café since we first heard of them five or so years ago. Did it disappoint? No. It is exactly as advertised: a chill-ass spot with beanbag chairs and a bunch of cats hanging out at a range of energy levels. (Actually, it could have been more of a café: The menu is mostly cookies — can we get some wraps or something? But they do have Blue Bottle coffee.)
Cat cafés first started in Japan, and have morphed into other animal-based recreational cafés. Now Tokyo has goat cafés, rabbit cafés and, uh, bird cafés. But this is kind of a new thing in the U.S., which is why we thought we needed to go check one out. Located in New York's Lower East Side, the café hosts a rotating cast of furry cat faces, all available for cuddles, pets, playing, and adoption (via no-kill shelter KittyKind). Visitors pay $5 to hang out with the cats in half-hour increments, free to play and pet as many cats as they want.
It turns out people are really into playing with cats.
We hadn't really considered what type of people would be at the cat café midday, midweek, but it was clear as soon as we walked in the door that the people-watching was half the experience. People love talking about cats, man. Their own cats, cats long deceased, and the many rad cats of Meow Parlour.
"My son lives with us and he doesn't want the cat in his room but of course the cat always wants to go in his room," says one 70-ish woman to one of the café's two full-time employees. She bends his ear for another 10 minutes, going through the list of her cat's maladies. He nods with kind understanding.
"I used to have a cat but my ex got her in the breakup," says Ting, from Queenstown, New Zealand. So as part of Ting's visit to New York, she decided to make a special visit to Meow Parlour. Ting is lying on the floor with a couple of cats within arm's reach.
Paul chills in the corner all day, lets people pet him, and is generally just mega easygoing.
"We can't have any in our apartment, but my partner and I are huge cat fans," says Eliana, who came to the Parlour by way of Capetown, South Africa. "They're like children to us. I follow them on Instagram."
"For people who are too busy to have a pet, these are nice alternatives," says José Suris, one of the Meow Parlour's two employees on duty. According to Suris, Meow Parlour has had a hand in adopting out around 50 cats since it opened last December. Cat adoptions are so successful, he says, because "it gives people the opportunity to pal around with cats and it gives cats the socialization they need to be adopted."
Does Suris have cats of his own? Sadly, no, because his roommate is allergic. But if not? He'd adopt man-faced Sergey in a second. Sergey's probably going to lose his right front leg soon because the metal bar that's currently in his leg broke in half and it's probably safer for him to be a tripod than for him to have a janky rod floating around in his body. He just got adopted, though, so that's good news.
"I want to adopt but I know how it would be — I would want to adopt 10 at the same time," says Suris. Us too, José.
Manolo really loves his cat-shaped sleeping bowl.
There are a lot of soap opera–worthy sad stories at the cat café — like Missy and Sparkle, two sisters who had to be given up for adoption because their owners are sick and dying. And Xena, whose owners refused to get her neutered, so she had seven litters of kittens in two and a half years. Or Gucci and Manolo, who got their monikers from their time spent mousing at a shoe store. They're best friends, and whenever a dog walks by, Gucci runs to the front of the café to make sure that Manolo is safe.
So much heavy dramz. The cat café also seems to attract such a wide swath of people. The one thing they have in common is cats. And seemingly the unspoken rule of cat café is that everyone is gonna talk about cats all the time.
At one point, Meow Parlour owner Christina Ha comes by and introduces herself, explaining that the café came out of her deep-seated cat lady ways. Ha also runs the Meow Parlour Patisserie, which is actually housed in a different building around the corner (in order to respect health codes). You can order food and drinks from the café and have them delivered over to the cat café at any time.
"It's good you came here today because we had a totally different group of people here this weekend," says Christina, greeting us. She pauses. "And by people, I mean cats." Christina Ha is in so deep she can't even separate cats from humans.
Sometimes the cats will do your blogging for you.
After lunch, an energetic, orange 4-month-old kitten named Gatsby is the center of attention, chasing mini tennis balls with an energy that outmatches his clumsy paws. Sparkle and Missy make regular circles to the different, rotating pods of eager petters, a range of children with parents, thirtysomething couples, and elderly visitors. A few cats stay put the entire time, too comfortable to move. Meow Parlour encourages visitors to leave those cats the eff alone. You wouldn't want to be bothered during your nap, either.
Later in the afternoon a group of five young, hip-looking kids come in. All SVA students, two of them had come three weeks prior and were back with more friends. Four of the five of them have their own cats, but one of the students doesn't because he can't have one in his dorm. These kids sit on the floor, petting cats, oblivious to everything.
You can boop the cats.
Is it worth $5? we ask. "It's worth $30. I would trade my tuition for this," a bespectacled student says. "I've never felt happier," another adds. "My blood pressure has never been lower."
"It's purrfect, with two R's," a third college kid adds. The first time they visited, there were way fewer humans, and the energy was more relaxed. There were different cats then, which is why coming back to Meow Parlour multiple times is so intriguing. Cats come and go as they're rescued and adopted, so the vibe of the place can change weekly.
Part of the genius of the cat café is you can find a cat to fit your desired level of engagement. Just had your espresso? You can play string with an enthusiastic cat. Feeling groovy? You can just sit and pet a lazy cat and think about the energy of the space. No one will bother you, because everyone is having a great time, because the singular focus is cats. You don't have to talk about anything else. It wouldn't fit. We're not talking football, there's a bunch of incredible cats walking around.
This is the life. The cat life.