Review: The Cats in Los Gatos

FELINE FINES: Two majestic namesake beasts guard the entrance to the Cats. // Photo by Michael S. Gant .

FELINE FINES: Two majestic namesake beasts guard the entrance to the Cats. // Photo by Michael S. Gant .

The famous Los Gatos roadhouse the Cats has reopened with lots of barbecue and old-time atmosphere.

The roadhouse was built in the late 1800s and had been a way station on a stage line and timber road that ran up and over the Santa Cruz Mountains. When the road was first paved, around 1920, the Cats was reportedly a notorious speakeasy and whorehouse.

Growing in Silicon Valley, the Cats always seemed too adult for me. While I passed it going to and from Santa Cruz on Highway 17 for years, pulling into the roadside restaurant seemed a little intimidating because I was nervous about re-entering traffic on the sketchy roadway.

I also had it my mind that the Cats was a place where a high school kid like me would feel out of place. Better to play it safe at Jake’s or Kirk’s. I think I only went once when I was a senior in high school. A band was playing opposite the bar, and as I teetered on the edge of adulthood, I remember liking the slightly rough-around-the edges, beery aroma of the place. Pretty cool, I thought.

I moved away to go to college, but on visits back home there was the Cats as always, a lone outpost on Highway 17 that always seemed crowded, hosting one party after another. The years went by, but then one day I noticed the parking lot was oddly empty. The venerable place had closed.

The roadhouse was built in the late 1800s and had been a way station on a stage line and timber road that ran up and over the Santa Cruz Mountains. When the road was first paved, around 1920, the Cats was reportedly a notorious speakeasy and whorehouse.

I guess that’s the vibe I picked up on a teenager. In the 1940s and 1950s, the building broke with its reputation for vice and became a real estate office, a sporting goods store and even a gun shop. In 1967, the Cats was reincarnated as a restaurant and bar until it closed in 2007.

On New Year’s Eve, the Cats reopened. The restaurant changed hands in 2008 and would have opened shortly thereafter, but bringing a historic building up to code proved to be time-consuming and costly. But now, the parking lot is as crowded as ever.

In spite of all the work that went into updating the Cats, I was pleased to see that it looks just like I remember. The building has an old-fashioned, rustic charm that can’t be manufactured—it only comes with age. Old-timey knickknacks (rifles, pulleys, wagon wheels) hang from the walls. My favorites are the cat-themed stained-glass lamps dangling from the ceiling.

In addition to the bar and Wild West atmosphere, the best part of the Cats is the food, specifically the barbecue. If the wind is blowing right, you can smell the hickory and apple wood smoke from the smokers behind the restaurant wafting onto Highway 17.

The lineup includes St. Louis-style ribs, chicken and pulled pork. Sadly, there is no brisket on the menu. The Cats also grills steaks and chops over red oak to great effect.

Paul Kirk, a competitive barbecuer and author who also goes by the name the “Kansas City Baron of Barbecue,’ worked as a consultant to get the barbecue program up to speed. (If you’re interested, Kirk will be teaching a barbecue class at the Cats in June.)

I especially enjoyed the ribs ($16.95/$29.95 half- or full rack), at least some of them. The term St. Louis-style ribs refers to the cut of the ribs, not the cooking style. However, many times I find that St. Louis-style ribs come with too much sweet barbecue sauce, so I ordered mine dry.

The ribs are well-dusted with a spice rub, smoke blackened and just this side of dry. But a sample of another serving of ribs revealed moist and tender meat—and more meat in general. My guess is the thinner ribs simply dry out faster. But in both cases, the ribs are loaded with smoke flavor and a delicious salty, aromatic crust.

The accompanying sauce is thin but flavorful, a good balance of sweet and tart that accents the meat rather the overpowering it.

Barbecued chicken is always a gamble, and the least-interesting of the barbecue arts because it can dry out so easily, but here the half-chicken ($17.95) is a beautiful mahogany and plenty juicy.

Sides are standard stuff—chili, burnt-end beans, baked potatoes, onion strings, etc. Vegetables are scarce, but you do get a ho-hum salad with all entrees.

Silicon Valley has few barbecue standouts, and the Cats is a worthy addition. But as the cars that pack the parking lot attest, the Cats is more than a BBQ joint. It’s a South Bay institution, and it’s good to see it back.

The Cats Restaurant and Tavern
17533 Santa Cruz Hwy (Hwy 17), Los Gatos
408.354.4020

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