Stray Cat Cafe Strives to Emerge From Shadow of Top Dog
By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, September 22, 2005
Westover is one of those rare inside-the-Beltway neighborhood centers that hasn't been tinkered with, modernized or overdeveloped into a pseudo old-time downtown. It's a simple two-block stretch along Washington Boulevard in Arlington that is home to a post office, a variety store, a drugstore, several small shops and a handful of restaurants.
The Lebanese Taverna empire started here, and the original restaurant in Westover remains its flagship.
The Gourmet Pizza Deli opened 20 years ago and over the years has morphed into an unusual deli/takeout/wine store that segues into the Lost Dog Cafe, home of the best pizza in the neighborhood. The business combines two slender storefronts in a tiny strip shopping center, and you have to walk through the deli to get to the cafe.
The cafe is adorned with paintings of dogs -- cartoonish, brilliantly colored works that aren't quite dogs playing poker on black velvet, but you get the idea. The atmosphere conveys a certain attitude: Servers wear T-shirts that announce "Life Is Short, Bite Hard."
Dogs aren't just a design motif; a portion of the proceeds goes to the nonprofit Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, set up by cafe owners Ross Underwood and Pam McAwlee. The cafe's Web site proudly announces recent adoptions of the canine variety.
The Lost Dog Cafe is the kind of place where stay-at-home moms lunch with their children, teenagers gather in groups and young adults meet for an inexpensive date. The menu is a mishmash of what have become all-American dishes: spinach and artichoke dip, hummus with pita chips, pizza, sandwiches and desserts, based mostly on ice cream and very chocolaty brownies. It's good, homey fare.
There is usually a wait to get into the Lost Dog, and often the wait is long.
This past spring the Lost Dog gained a sibling, the Stray Cat Cafe, just a few doors away. If ever there was a haven for cat lovers, this is it. The colors are just as boisterous as those of the Lost Dog -- purple, orange and green, for example -- but the decor is a bit more stylish, in a feline sort of way. Handsome photographs of cats, framed identically in black, line a long wall of the skinny space.
The Stray Cat has a bar in the front with a half-dozen high tables and stools for informal gatherings. There are a few booths and a long wooden banquette with tables and chairs.
Many of the dishes will be familiar to Lost Dog regulars, but there's no pizza. The menu alone makes a visit fun. Onion rings are Tail Chasers, curly fries with cheese are Mouse Tails Con Queso , hummus and pita are the Persian Cat. Almost every menu item incorporates some cat pun or the name of a cat species or beloved pet.
Dishes include the Avo-Gato Salad (homemade chicken or tuna salad topped with sliced avocado), Stray Caesar's Salad (the classic preparation), Blue Point Salad (with crumbled blue cheese) and Alley Cat Salad (grilled flank steak or chicken breast with basil and mozzarella). Sandwiches include the Garfield (roast sirloin with creamy brie and sauteed mushrooms), Cajun Cat (grilled chicken breast with spicy remoulade sauce), Catmandu Wrap (grilled beef or chicken wrapped in a pita with guacamole, green peppers and sour cream) and my favorite, El Gato Cubano (a traditional Cuban sandwich with pulled pork, grilled ham, Swiss cheese and dill pickles).
In recent days, McAwlee and staff members have been tweaking the menu to make it more distinctive and give the Stray Cat something other than the feeling of simply an overflow room for the Lost Dog. One night I arrived about 8:45 and found the kitchen already closed. The staff explained that it was a slow night and suggested I try the Lost Dog instead. The Stray Cat needs to develop its own personality: No cat would ever let a dog even think it rules the place!
Many of the menu changes, which include more original sandwiches and burgers, have already taken effect. The warmed pita bread topped with slices of chicken, melted cheese and sliced black olives that I tried on a recent visit has been modified to become Cats-a-dillas, now served on a warm tortilla.
Platters offer a full meal for less than $10. The pulled pork platter lacks the crusty char of the best smoked pork, but it's flavorful and accented well with the more mustardy of the two barbecue sauces. The coleslaw is too creamy for me; I like some vinegary bite. But what southerner wouldn't love a meal that includes an individual loaf of good cornbread -- even though it has a touch of sugar?
The fried shrimp platter features the same homemade coleslaw and loaf of cornbread, plus a zesty remoulade that saves the rather tasteless shrimp tucked inside savory breading.
The cafe is already attracting its own following, including gaggles of teenagers after school. With the changes to give the Stray Cat a more regal presence, it'll be hard to resist curling up with a tasty morsel here on an early fall night.