I have been waiting a long time to visit Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium – the UK’s first ever cat cafe. I’ve been waiting since February 2013, to be exact, when I joined in with hundreds of other people on indiegogo.com to help get the business off the ground. I also covered the campaign in the magazine I edit, and waited patiently for the day to roll around when I could cash in my voucher for High Tea for Two – which was a present for my husband for Valentine’s day.
Now for the disclaimer: I am a dog person. I’ve always had cats, and at the moment I don’t even have a dog, but my heart belongs to canines. I love cats as well – but I’m not crazy about them. You certainly don’t have to be crazy about cats to enjoy a visit to Lady Dinah’s, but it helps…
I’m going to divide this write up into two sections, and the first one I’m going to call ‘room for improvement’. Because I really want this business to be a success for a multiple of reasons, I hope they sort out some of the issues still lingering. Considering they are fully booked from now until October, something makes me think they don’t particularly need my advice, but still… Here it is!
The entrance to Lady Dinah’s is basically a small holding room where you wait to gain entry (for £5 a head) to the main cafe. It contains chairs, a bar behind which people are preparing drinks (although are hidden behind a really high counter), and various pieces of information about the cafe and the cats. When we entered, we were ignored for about ten minutes by staff, who were listening to another customer ramble on about their own cats, complete with the obligatory ‘let me get my phone out and show you pictures’ session. When the waitress finished talking, she immediately left without acknowledging us, and so we sat patiently expecting her to come back before finally asking the people behind the bar (who were obviously busy) what we were supposed to do. This was an unfortunate yet understandable issue, but there really needs to a greeter, or at least a bell to summon someone. My advice is, don’t expect the staff here to approach you – that goes for everything from entering to ordering.
That brings me onto my second point, which is that this is a cat petting zoo first and a cafe a distant second. The food is amazing. The menu is lovely. But the concept of being a cafe seems like a second thought, because the waiting staff forgot to take orders, forgot to bring orders they had already taken, and forgot which table had ordered what. (I put this partially down to the fact that customers will get up and move around the cafe in pursuit of cats, making them difficult to find…!) Although I had no problem with the food itself, I saw someone else send back cold coffee. When we entered the cafe, we were not seated but rather left to find a place for ourselves – which sounds silly but was genuinely confusing for a few minutes. A proper host or hostess is needed to guide people to their seats, and briefly explain the concept of the cafe, and maybe take drink orders. (Also, note that although vouchers were sold for High Tea, it doesn’t exist on the menu… When we asked the staff what it consisted of, the answers were ‘whatever you want’ and ‘I’m not sure exactly’, although then they did bring out the cake stand with cake, sandwiches and scones as you would expect from High Tea.)
The third issue I had was the general appearance of the cafe itself. The entrance is cramped and dark – and when we approached Lady Dinah’s, the shutters were half closed against the sun, which made it look like it was closing, when in fact, it was open for many more hours. Sun blinds are a definite must-buy. Inside, the counter is covered with knick-knacks, detritus, a huge cake display case that’s too high to see into, and bags and bags of what I assume was coffee. Just a mess. Inside the cafe itself, mismatched dark oak furniture is everywhere, and the effect is one of visiting your mad aunt’s house for tea rather than a stylish boutique cafe. Mismatching furniture and tea sets is a huge trend, but it’s easy to get wrong, and unfortunately I think Lady Dinah’s really missed out here, especially considering that Brick Lane was full of little trendy hipster cafes and cake shops that show how it should be done. I imagine this was a budget issue before anything else, but hopefully when the business establishes itself, it will invest in a stylist or interior designer to bring everything together. It’s harder than it looks! Finally, although the business hasn’t even been open for a year (it opened in March), there are already scuff marks on the paintwork, and a general sense that this is in need of refurbishment. I understand that the presence of animals means that the place will not be 100% spotless, but anyone with pets can tell you it’s not impossible to keep the paintwork free of shoe scuffs just because you own a cat.
Now, onto the good points!
The food. The food is amazing.
The High Tea voucher cost me £50 for two, but I overheard a waitress tell someone else that it was available now for £30 per person. We were offered a drink of our choice and then brought these beautiful tiered cake stand (decorated with cute cat paw print made of passion fruit coulis!).
Instead of the traditional sandwiches, Lady Dinah’s serves cut up bagels – which are deliciously chewy and sweet. The best filling in my opinion was cream cheese, smoked salmon and onion – the addition of the onion really elevated this into something special. There was also hummus and sun dried tomato, egg mayonnaise, and a chicken filling – a great mix of traditional and more modern flavours. The cakes were divine – coconut and pineapple, and red velvet. Slightly chilled, with creamy fillings made with high quality ingredients – and generous portions, too. And finally, the scones – a fruit and plain one, with plenty of raspberry jam and cream. Faultless.
Even better was the promise of ‘whatever you like’ – they really did live up to this and continually offered us replenishments of all the tiers. We even ordered a slice of quiche as well, which was served warm with a salad and balsamic dressing. They also brought more tea and a cup of espresso towards the end of the meal. It’s excellent value for money (because Lady Dinah’s charges £5 to enter, and this fee is included in your High Tea price as well).
Of course, no one is here to critique the interior decor, or review the menu. They’re here for cats.
There are 11 cats in residence at Lady Dinah’s at present, and they all have their own Twitter accounts. Their histories and personalities are available to read on the cafe’s website. Visitors are asked not to disturb sleeping cats, or to feed the cats any human food, as cat welfare is of the highest priority. At times, the cats are elusive as they sleep 18 hours a day – leaving a small window for human interaction. On our visit, we found that we had to seek the cats out for a cuddle or to play, as very few approach the guests – and why would they? Cats are famous for playing hard to get!
You’ll also be competing with the other guests to a certain extent for the cat’s attention – everyone is there for the cats, so if a cat starts walking through the cafe, everyone immediately starts vying for its attention, which is slightly hilarious to behold.
On the whole, I definitely recommend a visit to Lady Dinah’s – the cats are adorable and the food is great. The negative points are minor, but I’ve tried to be as honest as I can for the only reason that I genuinely love this concept, and hope that some of the issues I mention will be worked out. I also know that there are some very vocal supporters of the cafe, many of whom haven’t yet had the chance to visit, who reflexively attack any perceived insults to business out of a sense of protective and fierce loyalty. I had a fantastic experience at Lady Dinah’s, but I wanted to write this review to give future visitors a realistic view of what to expect, warts and all. If you love cats and you love food, you’ll certainly have a great time.
Find Lady Dinah’s online at http://ladydinahs.com. The cafe is located at 152-154 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, London, E26DG. Currently, the cafe is fully booked until October, but walk-in spots may be available if you contact them.