By Chris Howell and Patrick Mulligan
At Chateau le Woof in Astoria, couples enjoyed champagne and a four-course meal that also came with a doggy dish. Café Bark, in Washington Heights, had a K-9 kissing booth for cute pictures of dogs in costumes. And Boris & Horton, in Alphabet City, had a doggy meet and greet with an Insta-famous French Bulldog. All were events held on Valentine’s Day at some of New York’s popular dog cafes.
The pet-friendly establishments have adopted a unique business model allowing them to grow in numbers in a city with strict health code regulations. They resemble indoor dog parks, but with an attached café for pet owners to get coffee and food that can be eaten alongside their dogs. To pass muster with the city, the two spaces are separated by a plexiglass wall and have their own entrances, technically making them separate locations.
Natassa Cortini, proprietor of Chateau le Woof, said she wanted to create a space where she would enjoy spending time with her two dogs, King, a 17-year-old Pitbull, and Lola, a 4-year-old Chihuahua.
“The business is built on a love story with your dog,” she said over the phone as she took King for a walk. “Dogs help us let our guard down, get out of our shell and meet new people.”
And on Valentine’s Day the dogs helped couples with romance too. At Chateau le Woof, couples who purchased a ticket to spend the day at Chateau le Woof were greeted by a host who showed them to their seats. The typically bright lights were dimmed. Two long tables were packed into what normally is the doggy play area, allowing dates to enjoy their dinners as their pets played with each other.
The menu featured chef-made meals including burrata cheese, braised oxtail, seafood tomato rice, and a soufflé dessert. Every course also had a vegan option. The doggy meals could hardly be considered dog food: They were given the option of beef bourguignon, turkey with vegetables, or a vegetarian dish.
While some doggie establishments have had problems with the Department of Health, Cortini said it has, thankfully, been good to her. Chateau recently received an A rating from the department thanks in part she says to her proactiveness with health regulators. When she expanded to her current, larger location in 2018, Cortini, says she went to officials first with a proposal and a list of questions.
“As long as you abide and are transparent with them, they are okay,” she said.
Not all pet-friendly café owners have expressed the same positive feelings for the Department of Health. Boris & Horton’s owners complained to The New York Post in November after health officials reportedly told them they could no longer have staff take food and drink orders from patrons on the dog side. They told the Post the change caused a steep drop in revenue.
At Boris & Horton, the entrance to the café has a message to customers: “Sorry pups you can’t be here! The Department of Health says we can’t have pups on this side of the store. It’s not your fault. You’re so cute and such a good dog and it’s just because it’s some sort of violation. Remember that time you saw that squirrel and it looked RIGHT at you? That was a good day. Focus on that.”
On the dog side of the café this Valentine’s Day, there was a flurry of movement as a French Bulldog meet-up was underway. A competition for best costume meant that all dogs were in their finest outfits, posing with their owners in photos for social media. Two grunge pups, Bob and Marley, wore denim vests with iron-on patches proclaiming their love of Nirvana and Jaws, while a black French Bulldog featured a camo coat.
“It’s such a happy place to come,” said Marlene Barrett, who added that she started coming with her Weimaraner-Doodle, dressed in a scratchy argyle sweater, and middle school aged daughter to help lessen their social anxieties. Her daughter recently started withdrawing, leading Barrett to adopt a rescue dog as a kind of emotional support dog. Now, in addition to riding the school bus together, the two can work at Boris & Horton on math homework and be relaxed.
Just because an establishment is labeled as a dog café, however, does not mean a dog is a requirement. On normal days, it is not uncommon to see someone sitting at the tables working, enjoying the company of other people’s animals. Barrett said that she had seen a woman working on a screenplay the day before.
Café Bark did not host an event on the fourteenth, but it set up a kissing booth the day after Valentine’s Day in front of a heart-shaped wreath made of red and pink roses. Pet owners placed their costumed companions—one was dressed in a Yankees jersey and hat and seemed most comfortable going places on his skateboard—in the booth to try and capture an Instagram-able moment.
Kathy Sanchec was in attendance with her Maltese mix Tommy. They had driven 20 minutes from New Jersey for the occasion.
Although they chose Café Bark for this event, Sanchec said she had been to Boris & Horton as well as Chateau le Woof. The benefit of the others compared to Café Bark, she said, was that they didn’t have the new leash rule that kept the dogs on a short rope. Tommy could run free and play with his friends at the other places.
“He has so much fun,” she said of these times.