Not to the humans' taste: fine dining cafes where dogs eat like royalty

Dogue – pronounced like fad – is a San Francisco restaurant just for dogs. And on Sundays, it offers a $75 tasting menu

by Maanvi Singh with photo by Gabriela Hasbun

It looked like a scene from Lady and the Tramp.

The dogs sprawled out along the leather-covered booths or sat at the bistro tables. They stand on hind legs to assess the pastel-colored pastries behind the counter, and study the neatly arranged plates. Dogue – pronounced like a fad – is San Francisco's new cafe just for dogs. And on Sundays, it offers a $75 tasting menu.

Since its debut in March, the prix fixe for puppies has instantly drawn bits of ire, ridicule, and rumination about late-stage capitalism and societal decline. Inevitably, it's also attracted hordes of millennial dog parents from the Bay Area and beyond.

Most of it passes directly over the dog's head.

On a recent weekend, a group of mutts at the front desk happily devoured the shortcakes, which were frosted with wild icing. Behind, a little furry man was too nervous to eat his cake – his eyes widened at the chaos around him. Between bites, the dogs sniffed and licked each other, tying their leashes around the table.

Co-owner Rahmi Massarweh, a classically trained chef, started the venture after burning out in a luxury kitchen. Humans, he said, could never appreciate his art like dogs.

Cole happily hopped into the back booth to try the famous $75 tasting menu. He always showed appreciation for the finer things in life. I adopted him four years ago as a puppy. The shelter told me she and her brother were street dogs rescued in Texas. But he has the attitude of an ancient hedonistic god who became bored with the world and decided to be reincarnated as a pampered pet.

He will refuse to eat his kibble unless it is garnished – at least! – with a drizzle of olive oil and shaved parmesan or a sprinkling of katsuobushi. He prefers soft scrambled eggs or French omelettes to fried eggs.

He was born for today.

The prix fixe holiday begins with antelope heart pate, encased in a blue Tiffany box which she carefully flicks with her tongue.

Next came the beef liver flan with pumpkin pearls, under an edible honeycomb cage. Cole chased after the plump, gelatinous, pumpkin-flavored beads as they bounced off his bowl and across the marble counter.

It's all a bit foreign and exciting – even the water, which comes with a bonus snack (cucumber slices).

Like many of us who are lucky enough to experience true gastronomy for the first time, Cole was both confused and delighted by the presentation of each course. And like many of us, she is sometimes intimidated by extravagant venue settings. Maybe more because he doesn't have an opposable thumb.

She struggled to get her sardines and wild cuttlefish out of her miniature china plate, tilting her head left and right as she assessed the proper approach.

His favorite dish is beef ribs braised for 14 hours – his eyes widen with every bite.

“Tasting our menu is a journey – a journey of taste,” says Massarweh. Each week, he focuses on a different theme or idea. In November, she created a Thanksgiving-inspired menu, featuring sweet potatoes and cranberries. “Other times, it's more of a feeling or emotion I want to evoke with a dish. Sometimes maybe it's a smell or a fragrance that I want to really come across, you know, the inspiration is so random,” she says.

Massarweh's dogs – Grizzly and Luna – are now his main taste testers, and he also tastes all the dishes himself. No spices, or aromatics - which doesn't suit a dog's constitution. "But the food is not made for human taste," he said.

If you had asked me 20 years ago, when I went to culinary school, if I would have opened a dog cafe, I would have looked at you like you were crazy,” said Massarweh. And over the last few months, he's had to explain – and defend – his decision to do so several times.

The presence of cafes in San Francisco, a city with stark wealth inequality, and in Mission – a historic neighborhood that has undergone painfully accelerated gentrification in recent years – has become emblematic of some of the city's failings.

Dogue is far from the first or fanciest restaurant in the Mission District of San Francisco. A $125 pasta dish and a $275 seasonal tasting menu (for humans) are within walking distance. Still, the idea that dogs are indulged while people suffer is a flashpoint of debate online.

“The idea of all this social and financial inequality has not left me,” said Massarweh. "And that's something that, I think, is too much of a burden for a dog shop to handle."

Massarweh said he was called to service dogs after he and his wife adopted their first puppy together, their Grizzly mastiff. She hated the idea of feeding her puppies joyless, dry kibble.

“Our animals are our family. And family members deserve more," he said. "Maybe it's just my bias as a chef."

Dogue is named after the French word for mastiff. And while Massarweh's Sunday tasting menu has gotten the most attention so far, he's focused on selling fresh dog food and training treats for the rest of the week.

Fancy cakes and chef-grade plating are as much for people as they are for dogs.

Melissa Wilkerson brings Roger, a retired show cocker spaniel, for a special treat and laughs at herself when she unboxes a rose-shaped purple cake from her ribbon box. "My grandmother was always like, 'You have to have kids,' and I was like, 'I've got a baby boy!'" she says. “If my grandma saw this, she would say I'm crazy.

“But look at that face! That's all that matters.”

Almost everyone pulled out their cell phones, excitedly filming their puppies as they ate their fancy little cakes and sumptuous dishes. Passers-by with and without dogs peered inside only to see an essentially ridiculous sight.

That's how Fred Makota, an 81-year-old retired plumber, and his 12-year-old miniature poodle Lucy ended up here.

They met about a decade ago, just a few blocks away from here. Fred almost ran him over with his car one night. He has no collar, no chips, and no one else is claiming it. "We've been together ever since," he said.

The two of them sat on the bench and watched the furry little bichon, gingerly licking the fine white confection the size and shape of his face. At the counter, a bug-eyed Boston terrier in a hoodie glanced doubtfully at the cookie box. Some dogs are more interested in wrestling than eating, while others sit quietly and politely at the table.

Many customers celebrate special occasions, adoption anniversaries or birthdays.

“I absolutely love fine dining for myself and love tasting menus,” said Monique Rao, who brought Pickles to celebrate the dog's 15th birthday. “It is a special treat to have him experience the same. He deserved it."

Acar is a smart and respectable lady, carefully sorting out each course, grading every morsel and helping herself to only the best. Then, he walked over to another table, to see if they might want to offer him some more of the best.

Rao then gave Pickles' leftovers to Cole.

Meanwhile Jojo, a little yorkie, shuddered with joy as his owner selected a teal ball speckled with a whisper of gold foil.

An ardent Sagittarius and seeker of novelty, 14-year-old Jojo, and his family have been driving here from just over an hour north, for a day full of celebrations. Then, they will take a walk in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. For now, Jojo dove into the teal cake, lush gold foil reflecting in his dark eyes as he devoured his birthday treat.

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