The Cats — Perfect, notorious BBQ
My first encounter with The Cats occurred late one night on a ride back from the airport. Starving and exhausted, I’d had a delightful trip filled with non-stop family events on the East Coast but after the flight––complete with a self-identifying witch for a traveling companion, and a seat that wouldn’t recline––I needed food, fast.
“I know the perfect place,” my daughter said. Perfect sounded good.
About 20 minutes into the ride home to Santa Cruz, she veered off Highway 17 in Los Gatos onto a short exit ramp and into a small parking lot where a building straight out of Bonanza greeted us. We walked up the steps and into the Wild West, live band and all with a guitarist rocking refreshingly hard. Luckily, we’d arrived before they closed at 10:01 pm, no joke, check out their hours for a laugh.
Despite the time, they said we could still order dinner. It didn’t take me long to settle on the Pulled Pork Sandwich––basically a late night, after-travel answer to prayer with slow-smoked pork, bleu cheese and coleslaw tucked into a few pieces of fire-toasted bread, for under $16. My daughter got a sampler BBQ plate with their signature ribs.
As we shared the plate I reminisced about my romance with American BBQ in Memphis and Nashville about a decade earlier on a road trip I had taken with my younger daughter from New York City to Los Angeles––we took the long way home, as usual. And this meal similarly slowed us down, enough to breathe and catch up––what I love about truly wonderful meals, they become a memory.
There’s so much to enjoy about the wide, wet and dry rub world of BBQ with some recipes as sacrosanct as the most scandalous of family secrets.
But forget the BBQ for a minute, I had no idea how delicious the history here proved to be. A one-time stop for stagecoaches, the Cats Roadhouse had also served as a weigh station for lumber wagons. Along with the introduction of paved roads, its history took a turn to the notorious during the 1920s as an infamous speakeasy and rumored bordello. More than a few guests have felt otherworldly presences on the property.
“Thank goodness I haven’t felt them,” says owner Harlan McHugh after pointing out the establishment’s distinction as one of the last American Roadhouses still standing, a former stagecoach stop.
In true cat fashion, past owners David Peterson and Mark Edwards were able to give the restaurant one of its previous nine lives. It took them three long years to overcome many legal and zoning challenges in order to reopen before passing the torch to current owners Aaron Crites and Harlan McHugh. Past incarnations of the property include a realty office, gun shop and sporting goods store.
Crites and McHugh took the helm in January of 2016 to begin another legendary chapter of the icon.
Aaron came from a restaurant background and to keep it in the family father-in-law Harlan came on board too. Intrigued with the history as well as sticking to the famous BBQ recipes of The Cats, they oversee the daily crafting of the BBQ sauce as well as the handmade dry rub mixture, used on all their offerings including salmon. Created personally by Paul Kirk, “Baron of BBQ” and worldwide award-winning BBQ legend, on a visit to The Cats years ago, I could almost taste the sweetness of the struggles to save the storied place in the smoky flavor of their rub.
From the stamped tin ceiling in the main bar area to stuffed moose heads, western decor delights here. Enjoy log cabin siding and old wagon wheel accents as well as antique furniture in the banquet room, including the upstairs bar made in Belgium.
But forget The Cats, you’ve really come to see the cats, right?
Along the drive up to the restaurant, you’ll meet Leo and Leona, cat sculptures created by Robert Paine. The pair have stood sentry at the entrance to gated Poet’s Canyon since 1922. In 1919 a writer named Col. Charles Erskine Scott Wood and poet Sara Bard Field purchased the 34-acre property to build their “castle in the sky,” a utopia where they could write away their days unencumbered by the outside world and its demands.
Sara holds the unique position in history as the first American to road trip across the United States by car for a political cause during the Women’s Suffragette Movement. I enjoyed knowing that Sara and I share a love of road trips and wonder if she also shared a passion for BBQ.
And that’s what makes this destination restaurant one for the books. Who wouldn’t love having world-class BBQ in one of the last remaining roadhouses in America with more lives than a cat, in the shadow of a “castle in the sky” owned by poets and writers thought to be anarchists and free-lovers? And that sums up why I enjoyed myself at The Cats so much. It was a little bit left of center, not that we have much of a center in these parts.
Beyond the fact that they accommodated my daughter and I in spite of the lateness of our arrival, they also go the extra mile literally with a free shuttle service every Friday and Saturday night from 6 pm to 11 pm from the Toll House Hotel in Los Gatos, leaving every 20 minutes.
Live music is just the cherry on top.
An online calendar will help you pick what night might be best for you and your crew’s night on the town. Which brings up another great point about how I personally like to dine. It’s always an added bonus when I feel like I’ve been transported. A curse of a travel writer, I suppose. My natural state is to want to take a journey even for an hour or two. It’s fun when restaurants that are so close to home can make me feel like I’m on an adventure.