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Cat cafés are the sort of thing that seems bonkers when you think about it but that make so much sense when you actually try it out. Despite popular belief that cat cafés are a Japanese invention, the first one apparently was in Taipei, Taiwan, back in 1998. It drew many visitors, including from Japan, who took the concept back home, opening their first, own Café Neko in Osaka in 2004. Now there are some 30-something in Tokyo alone and more than 150 all over the country.

Fortunately, other parts of the world are catching on the trend too. While we can still count all the cat cafés in Europe on a single hand, it won’t be like that much longer I think. The first, Café Neko, opened in Vienna, Austria, in 2012, Le café des chats in Paris, France, followed in 2013, as did one in Totnes, UK (which has, sadly, since closed). Il Neko just started serving cat lovers in Turin, Italy, and Koneko in Brighton, UK, is in the planning. And then there is Lady Dinah’s, or, rather Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, in London, a success story long before it started welcoming human visitors this year in March.

Lady Dinah’s is the brainchild of Australian Lauren Pears, who thought London would be the perfect place for a cat café – as did more than a thousand others once they heard of the idea, supporting the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign with £109,510 to make that dream reality. Paperwork and red tape delayed the café (both Le café des chats and Cat Café Totnes were conceived after Lady Dinah’s but started serving coffee & cake months earlier for this reason). When it finally opened, visitors came streaming in non-stop.

In order to eat cake with cats you have to reserve a space in advance, which, with Lady Dinah’s immense popularity, can be quite a challenge – the café is currently booked out until the autumn. However, cancellations do happen and are announced on the café’s Twitter feed for anyone to claim. One spot came up last Tuesday and, since I live only a short bike ride away and happened to be home, I decide to grab my chance. Off to Lady Dinah’s I went.

Coffee & Cake

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Lady Dinah’s serves all kinds of tea, coffee and cakes. There are savoury foods too and even an English afternoon tea option involving scones & clotted cream. Vegetarians and vegans are catered for. I had a cappuccino (with soy) and a pineapple layer cake (vegan). Now, the coffee is fine – but this isn’t Climpson’s & Sons or Monmouth. If you are not picky, go for it – that cute cat face alone makes it worth it – if you are a connoisseur, I would suggest tea instead (I’ll go for the hot chocolate next time). The cake was lovely, but quite rich – especially because the slice was so huge! I did not quite finish it. Lady Dinah’s actually has some take-away options for customers that can’t get a space in the café, so I might try some more of their goodies when I pass by on my way home.

Spectators on the Outside

It’s wonderful to see how much the cats are charming everyone, both in- and outside the café. There are always passerbys that stop and stare – and end up with a big smile on their faces. Children are especially intrigued by the kitties, but there are excited faces both young and old. I like how Lady Dinah’s adds its bit of happiness to the world like this.

The Kitties

There are kitties everywhere. They sleep. They play. They jump. Some hide in corners, others strut their stuff, walking across the room or hopping down the stairs. That’s what we all come for, of course.

The Ups and the Downs

Down: When you arrive at Lady Dinah’s you can feel a little lost. There is a separate entrance room where you are given instructions on the rules (understandably needed to keep the cats safe, happy and healthy) and asked to wash your hands. Once you enter the cat rooms themselves, you might not immediately be attended. I got there after the midday closing hour, meaning the place was still empty of customers and serving staff took a little while to appear and take your order. There is room for improvement here I think.

Neither up or down: At the beginning, most of the cats were sleeping, which is something some people seem to have been unhappy about. Personally, that’s not a complaint I understand. Sure, we’d all love a kitty to jump on our lap and play with us for two hours, but they are cats. They do what they want, and sometimes that means they don’t want any humans. If that’s disappointing, I would say start a kickstarter for a dog café?

Up: I have also read some complaints about customers ‘competing’ for the active cats or having to sit on the floor to play with them. I don’t quite see it like that. I thought Lady Dinah’s was one rare place where people – customers and staff – in London were interacting with each other. Most were a little shy at the beginning, because it is a little awkward – perhaps something that Londoners still have to get used to. But cats doing what they want and going where they choose is normal. If you are fine with that, the whole experience feels informal and relaxed. You might end up talking to a stranger, but a pleasant chat with a fellow cat lover can only be a good thing I think. Who knows, you might make a new friend!

In Comparison with Other Cat Cafés

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I have only ever been to one other cat café, Café Neko in Vienna, so there isn’t much I can compare with. Both have cats, but the ambience of the places are a little different. Lady Dinah’s is a London café in that trendy vintage style, with some comfy sofas (especially downstairs). Café Neko is more low-key and even more chill, in part because it has a much larger space. It’s got glass tables (not so comfy) and you probably won’t end up talking with others. It is also tucked away on a forgotten sidestreet (though right in the heart of Vienna) and no bookings are needed there. The rules were essentially the same (no picking up of cats, but playing with them or having them on your lap if they jump there is fine), so you get plenty of moments when the cats just don’t want to interact with anyone. Which is fine. I would argue the service is better in Café Neko, and I probably prefer their menu, but that’s because I have a soft spot for matcha latte and some of the tasty morsels the Japanese-run café has on offer (inarizushi!). Both are lovely, relaxing places.

(Note: I have added Le café des chats to my to-do list for my planned autumn trip to Paris.)

Booking: Attendance is by advance reservation only. Lady Dinah’s is currently booked out until the autumn, but any cancellations are announced on Twitter. If you are a single person, you’re quite likely to be able to snatch up a spot on most days, for pairs or larger groups you would have to strike lucky.

Cost: Lady Dinah’s has a £5 cover charge. Food and drink prices are the usual for London.

Bottomline: Recommended for cat lovers more so than coffee gourmets, but do come with an open mind and realistic expectations. It’s not a place for you to play with cats, but for cats to play with you, should they so choose! Do talk with strangers.

And: Japan, meanwhile, also has bunny, bird and, most recently even owl cafés.

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