First look: Inside Capitol Hill’s first cat cafe

(Images: Alex Garland for CHS)

On the corner of Pine and Belmont, huddles of friends walk down the street and crouch  to peer into a storefront window. There are giggles and smiles. Dogs peer through the window — from the sidewalk side of things — with curiosity and plenty to say.

The window belongs to Capitol Hill’s new Neko Cafe — pronounced neck-oh, and Japanese for cat. The cats inside are all ages and FeLV positive and from the Regional Animal Services of King County animal shelter. FeLV is feline leukemia.

“We wanted the cats that needed the most help,” said Neko’s creator Caitlin Unsell. “We wanted to give them a chance to show their best.”

The new and highly anticipated addition to Capitol Hill’s cafe scene opened softly over the weekend in preparation for an official opening on Tuesday, November 7th.

People can’t tell the difference between positive and negative FeLV cats, but it does mean the positive ones have a weaker immune system. It predisposes them to other conditions, like cancer, but doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll only live a few years. FeLV positive cats get it from their mothers or from the saliva of positive cats. This means they cannot be around FeLV-free cats. As a result, they used to be euthanized in animal shelters but not any more.

All of the Neko cats are adoptable with a $30 fee and an interview with the shelter. There’s hardly any paperwork.

Unsell taught English in Asia and lived in Japan where she had her cat. She then went to Vietnam and had to leave her buddy behind but was comforted by the cat cafes she could go to. Unsell and her cat are now reunited in Seattle but she knew as soon as she came back to the states — two and a half years ago — that she would begin the cat cafe trend here.

The interior of the cafe is pure cat-astic and warm. It has a soft glow and modern seating. One part of it is a restaurant that serves coffee, “nibbles,” wine and beer. Her food products come from the BeanFish truck for Takara (Japanese candy) and a local bakery for cookies.

The key differentiator from your typical Hill cafe is, of course, the cat room. The cat room has toys, tables in the shape of cat heads, pillows, wheat grass, and climbing areas for the cats. There is one door on the side that allows the cats to take some time away from us dang hoomans.

Cute bow ties differentiate male cats from female ones (which wear roses). We did not make that part up! The cat age-ranges are currently from five months to 11 years old. Already, Unsell has fielded unexpected inquiries. Girl Scouts, work meetings, and even bachelorette parties have called about Neko Cafe.

“I really wanted it to be in Capitol Hill,” Unsell said. “Everyone on Capitol Hill is so open to new and fun things. I love Capitol Hill, personally.”

Unsell lives nearby in Eastlake and was determined. Just looking for a retail space on the Hill took her over a year. The funding also took quite a while and the building permit took exactly five months. CHS first reported on the start of the project way back in December, 2015 — You have cat to be kitten me: Neko Cat Cafe making Capitol Hill plans

“This was an office space with just a black floor and nothing else,” she said, “so we really had to have the vision.”

Clinkson Architects designed the project with a 211-square-foot cafe and a 209-square-foot catrium complete with CAT TOWER. CHS reported earlier this year on the project finding a home below the Bellwether low income housing building.

While inside the cat room this weekend, a suspicious black and white kitten stretched overhead while an old cat stared and took a swing. A gray, fluffy fellow with large yellow eyes, rimmed with green at the pupil, sweetly demanded to stay on our photographer’s lap. His name is Stitch. Another larger cat, by the name of Amore, donned half a white mustache and loved attention.

Unsell’s mom created Neko Cafe’s logo. The business, however, is Unsell’s alone. Typically, when she looks at the cats, they’re sleeping and “like angels,” but overnight it’s a different story. Unsell comes in to the cat room with wheat grass everywhere, tables toppled and pillows astray. Although a mess, it always makes her laugh. Fourteen employees help her manage it all. One of the cats had to recently return to the vet because of an eye infection.

The cats kept at Neko Cafe have regular veterinary check-ups. Potential owners are expected to follow suit.

With the weekend’s soft opening, Unsell was excited about the accomplishment and the paws-itive feedback.

“100% dream come true, like, to a T,” she said. “I woke up this morning and had a tear in my eye. Like, it’s real. To be sitting here right now feels surreal. I’m even choking up right now.”

Neko Cafe will officially be open to the public November 7th, this Tuesday.

There’s no time limit, and it’s $10 an hour for the cat room. Unsell highly recommends filling out online reservations, but walk-ins are okay if there’s space. There is a 10 person limit in the cat room at all times, and there will usually be seven to 10 cats.

Unsell’s already had a lot of inquiries about adoption.

“I just really hope we can make people’s days better,” she said with rosy cheeks and a sparkle in her eye. “My favorite thing is watching people look through the window and have these big smiles.”

Neko Cafe is located at 519 E Pine and open Monday through Thursday from 10 AM to 9 PM, Saturday 9 AM to 10 PM, and Sunday 9 AM to 9 PM. You can learn more — and make a reservation — at

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10 thoughts on “First look: Inside Capitol Hill’s first cat cafe

  1. When you go to the Humane Society, there is also a separate room for cats that have Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). Cats that are FIV+ are sometimes hard to get adopted too, because people are afraid it’s contagious to humans (it’s not). They can lead normal lives if you keep them indoors. If you’re open to adopting a “special needs” kitty, consider an FIV+ one.

    • You’re right about that. We took in Waldo, a one or two year old stray with FIV, and he was the most loving, wonderful cat you could ever hope for. The first vet we took him to said we should kill him because he had FIV. We took Waldo home and he lived for 10 years, or so, happily. He was the best little orange boy, our Waldo.

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