Ratting Out the Disappointing Rat Cafe

The SF Dungeon Pop-Up Rat Cafe has won rave reviews, but we smelled a rat when we checked it out in person.

Petting some rodents (Joe Kukura)

A pop-up attraction coming to San Francisco this summer has generated international headlines, causing the media to tell some pretty fantastic, um, tails.

The Black Rat Cafe is a new feature coming to Fisherman’s Wharf’s San Francisco Dungeon tour, capitalizing on the interest in Hayes Valley’s cat-populated KitTea Cafe, and promising a chance to “sip coffee and interact with seven to eight real, free-roaming rats.”

“Soon There Will Be A ‘Rat Cafe’ Where You Can Dine Among Rodent Pals,” declares the Huffington Post. “For $50, You Can Dine at a Rat Café in San Francisco,” says Time magazine. Similar national coverage appeared on Buzzfeed and in Cosmopolitan, accompanied by photos of adorable, furry rats roaming around clean and beautiful cafe tables next to hot cups of coffee served in quaint, ceramic mugs.  

Believing that domestic rats are cute as hell and totally underrated as pets, SF Weekly scurried down to a press opening of the Rat Cafe in hopes of holding, snuggling, and even kissing these furry little friends while enjoying an artisan coffee. But unfortunately, none of this actually happens at the Rat Cafe.

The Rat Cafe experience does not in any way resemble its promotional materials. It is not even a “cafe.” Rather, it’s a handful of tables covered with plastic gingham tablecloths with coffee and tea selections that are crappier than what you’d expect to see at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Beverages are served in styrofoam cups, not mugs, and the rats are not free-roaming. Furthermore, you are obliged to buy the tour of the San Francisco Dungeon, a (literal) tourist trap built into the Madame Tussauds Celebrity Wax Attraction.

What is most disappointing — considering the pretty steep price of admission that “starts at $49.99” — is that you only get 15 minutes with the rats. After signing many, many release forms, your interaction with the rats will be exceedingly limited, and most visitors will not get a chance to hold a rat. You are made to spend far more time on the San Francisco Dungeon tour, an obligatory purchase for a Disneyland-style attraction that is designed for out-of-towners.

If that sounds underwhelming, consider that the Rat Cafe is only scheduled to operate a measly two days all summer: July 1 and July 8, and only at 9 a.m. slots. (Organizers say that more dates might be added if there is sufficient demand.)

Despite all my rage, rats are delightful rodents, as is  the very commendable Bay Area nonprofit that provides and handles them: Rattie Ratz, a Concord-based animal-advocacy group that cares for domesticated rats that don’t have homes.

“Our organization is dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, and then rehoming these rats,” Rattie Ratz adoption coordinator Stephanie Cameron says. “We really just want to educate people and show them how awesome rats can be. They’re very smart. My rats at home are litter-trained, just like a cat.

“A lot of people who have not been introduced to rats, when they hear the word rat they think ‘dirty sewer rat,’ ” she adds. “They have a really negative, preconceived understanding of what they think a rat is. Having them actually see a rat and interact with them and answering any questions they have, it really clears up a lot of misunderstanding.”

Rattie Ratz does great work with rat adoption, and rat enthusiasts are encouraged to visit their website for volunteer opportunities and chances to mingle with the rats. That’s a much better option for anyone looking for some real-life rat interaction, because at $50, a ticket to the Black Rat Cafe is kind of a ratchet job.

The Black Rat Cafe will host rat visitations on July 1 and July 8, 2017 at the San Francisco Dungeon, 145 Jefferson St. Tickets start at $49.99 and include an obligatory San Francisco Dungeon tour, but are not yet on sale. You can sign up to “Be the first to hear about tickets” at sanfrancisco.thedungeons.com.

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