TGIFOOD

WALTZING MELBOURNE

Going to the dogs at the dinner table

Going to the dogs at the dinner table
Neil McMahon and his curious kitchen companion Nellie Belle, an English Staffordshire Terrier (Photo: Neil McMahon)

There is increasing evidence that dogs are taking over the world, and the world includes places where we eat food. Should dogs be allowed in the kitchen? At the table? In a restaurant? In a cafe? In a bar? In a world increasingly run by humans for dogs, exactly where do we draw the line?

I have a dog. Anyone who knows me knows I have a dog. Many people who don’t know me know I have a dog, because I never shut up about having a dog and will tell anyone within earshot. I talk about my dog a lot. I take photos and videos of her more than is strictly healthy; when I type “dog” into the Photos app on my phone, I get 4,572 results. I write stories about my dog for publications like Daily Maverick, which is widely read by people who are complete strangers to me and who may hate reading about my dog when they have come to their favourite website to read about – let me think… food? 

Which brings me to the point, so don’t go anywhere just yet. I take my dog almost everywhere, and now I am bringing her to this column, and I promise you I have a point. This is where my dog and this column meet. To wit: the increasing evidence that dogs are taking over the world, and the world includes places where we eat food. Should dogs be allowed in the kitchen? At the table? In a restaurant? In a cafe? In a bar? In a world increasingly run by humans for dogs, exactly where do we draw the line?

It is a thriving area of debate in many parts of the world because in many cities there has been such an explosion in dog ownership that it is starting to seem compulsory to have one. 

The Covid pandemic is partly to credit (or blame) for this. 

In many countries, the extended lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 led to a boom in pet ownership. The figures don’t lie. In Australia, a 2021 study found that one million dogs had been brought into Australian homes in the previous 18 months covering the first year of the pandemic. (I was one of them; though that was because I mourned the loss of one dog and then got another in those terrible two years). There are roughly 25 million people in Australian, meaning there is a dog for every five of us. Similar booms have been reported in South Africa, the US and Britain – and that boom has brought with it a range of issues in metropolitan areas. 

There are the normal dog problems: dog mess, dog behaviour, dog aggression and dog noise. And then there are the particular trends that come with rampant anthropomorphism. If you are unfamiliar with the word, anthropomorphism is a fancy way of saying that we lunatic dog people increasingly treat our dogs like humans and imbue them with human characteristics. 

In short, as one academic study neatly summarised it: we are living through the rise of the fur baby. We kid ourselves (and everyone who cares to listen) that our dogs think like we do, feel like we do, act like we do. We think puppy dog eyes mean they love us; it is far more likely that it is just an evolutionary trait developed to make us feed them steak from the dinner table. But good luck convincing a modern dog owner of that. 

Which brings me to the point of this column about dogs and food. Dogs in the house are one thing. Dogs on the sofa are another thing. Dogs on the bed? Yes, that battle was lost long ago in many homes, including mine. 

But what about dogs and the dinner table?

In my hometown of Melbourne, dog-friendly venue numbers seem to have skipped from almost non-existent to  ubiquitous without any pause along the way for much debate about whether this is a good idea. But one can assume people who understand such things have concluded that it is. It must make business sense, because every day my social media feeds (clearly those algorithms know me well) are throwing up ads for dog-friendly cafes, dog-friendly bars, dog-friendly pub crawls, dog-friendly winery tours, even dog-friendly nightspots.

Chilling out: Beach cafes are a stop on Melbourne’s doggy pub crawls. (Photo: Puppy Pub Crawl)

The temptations are many, and they take aim squarely at a dog owner’s greatest vulnerability: the suggestion that their pooch is a majestic creature to be celebrated far more grandly than even one’s mere human mates. 

Take the wonderfully named Tipsy Cow, a Melbourne venue which waxes lyrical: “Here at The Tipsy Cow we embrace our furry best friends, here they are royalty. Everyone is on a journey, and every single day we give the world our best.

“So when a traveler is tired and needs some rest and recuperation, we are there. There is nothing in this world that a warm welcoming space, some good wholesome food, garnished with anecdotes of your nostalgia, and the sweet embrace of an elixir cannot fix. Welcome to The Tipsy Cow, your den, your hideaway, your dog-friendly cocktail/cheese and whisky laden, luxury cushion castle.”

One shudders to think what they paid the copywriters for that. Clearly there is high demand for creative types to find new ways to encourage dog owners to dine out with their mutts. It is at the point that four-legged clientele can sometimes seem more important than patrons making do with a mere two. 

At Left Field cafe, the promise is: “Go for breakfast. Stay for the dogspotting.”

Fine dining: Crepes are on the menu at Melbourne’s Chez Misty, a “human friendly dog restaurant”. (Photo: Chez Misty)

At Chez Misty, in the uber-trendy bayside area of St Kilda, two dog-savvy hospitality types have combined their passions to create a venue that doesn’t just welcome your dog, it feeds them, too. The place is owned by Marc, a dog trainer, and his partner Cherry, a dog nutritionist, who remove any doubt about what’s in store by calling their cafe “a human-friendly dog restaurant” rather than the other way around.

“We offer dogs and humans a place to hang out in a uniquely designed restaurant: a backyard area with couches for dogs and an indoor off-leash relaxing room.”

No, I’m not making that up. It goes on: “Chez Misty is named after the owners’ dog Misty. ‘I think she is the only dog in the world owning a creperie,’ says Cherry. The menu features French-inspired food, including canine crêpes with fillings such as peanut butter and cashew, fish with carrot, lettuce, turmeric, apple, spinach and ricotta.”

In the wine-growing areas near Melbourne, there are dog-friendly excursions with names like Gourmet Pawprint and Pooches and Pinot. A whiskey distillery invites you to bring your dog along for a tipple. At The Dog Cafe in the suburbs, you are invited to make your dog the star of the show (as if there was any doubt). “We love to capture your pooches having a ball here. Sit back, relax, enjoy a well earned coffee while your pooch enjoys our signature puppachino, roll around in our sandpit or ballpit in our off leash area. Remember your visit with snaps of your happy pooch.”

And the thing about all this is… as a dog owner, I don’t entirely like it. 

I have an English Staffordshire Terrier by the name of Nellie Belle, and if you know anything about the breed popularly known as Staffies you will know that they are the toddlers of dogs, in that nobody in their right mind really wants to take them anywhere that other people might be wanting to enjoy themselves. 

Staffies, and my Nellie Belle is no exception, are a wee bit mad. They are small, stocky, adorable hurricanes of energy and insecurity – people-loving, rambunctious sooks, and to be frank, taking her to a bar or restaurant feels like taking a screaming toddler into a venue and demanding every other patron look after her. Staffies know no boundaries, believing the world and the humans who run it are there for their enjoyment and benefit. And they have almost no manners to speak of when it comes to food.

And yet in spite of all this, and in spite of my own familiarity with what she is capable of, the rampaging anthropomorphism of our times finds me often casting aside my better judgment and venturing into these abundant dog-friendly spaces anyway. 

It rarely ends well. Nellie is not a lady for turning. For her, a cafe is a romper room of potential snacks, pats and praise. She pivots from splooting in the middle of the place – flat on her belly, legs akimbo like a frog – to jumping on waitresses and taking any chance she gets to demand attention and food from nearby diners and drinkers. 

She knows no boundaries – and let’s face it, as with all modern dogs in our big metropolises, why should she? We have taken all the boundaries away. We’ve invited them in. We’ve told them to pull up a chair. We’ve asked them to order from a menu. We have only just stopped short of offering them cutlery, and if we could work out a way to do that we surely would. 

Where, I wonder, will it all end? I’m off to a cafe for a coffee and cake to think about it. I’ll ask Nellie what she thinks and get back to you. DM/TGIFood

Neil McMahon is a Melbourne-based writer and author who in an earlier incarnation covered events in South Africa as a correspondent and columnist in Cape Town.

Follow Neil on Instagram @neildmcmahon

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