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Fabled tavern goes all out to obey health rules, save feline mascot

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The storied Red Carpet Lounge on Charleston's East End is home to many things: stiff drinks, a rotating cast of regular customers and, for now at least, a cat named Cali.

She's a mascot of sorts, a friendly calico who spends her nights lounging in and around the East End's favorite watering hole.

But when a sanitarian came by the Red Carpet for an inspection last week and was greeted by Cali at the door, he was less than charmed.

He cited the lounge for a violation under the health code, which mandates that animals not be on the premises of a food establishment. The Red Carpet serves lunch during the day.

That's a "critical violation," and one that demanded correction immediately.

Employees tossed the cat out the door and got on with the inspection.

Now they have to figure out how to keep Cali from treading into health code-violation territory without kicking her out of her home. They hope they can do that by keeping her away from the bar and restaurant area proper.

"They said she had to be off the premises," bar owner Mike Duda said. "I'm interpreting that to mean she can stay on the patio."

Nasandra Wright, a sanitarian supervisor with the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said that under the guidelines, that's probably OK.

"The cat shouldn't be anywhere where it can come in contact with clean equipment, utensils," she said.

Wright identified herself as a cat lover, saying she owns several, before listing the health risks associated with having animals around food preparation - namely the disease-causing organisms and pathogens they carry.

"So it shouldn't be where you're going to prepare food," she said, "even though it's a beloved cat."

Cali has been a fixture at the Red Carpet for years. Her whereabouts before then are tough to track down. A few regulars seem to remember that her owner moved from the East End around that time, but no one is sure whether Cali was left behind or just decided she preferred the neighborhood bar to her new home.

What is known is that about three years ago she started to gravitate to the bar, hanging out in the patio area and trying to slip in the door. And every time, Duda shooed her away.

"Then the lady regulars said, 'You can't run off a cat,' " he said. "It's not nice, you know, it's not American."

So he stopped shooing her away, took her to the vet for an exam, and let Cali settle into her new position as the Red Carpet's resident bar cat.

She's comfortable in that position: Duda keeps a heated cat house plugged in on the back patio (the heat turns on automatically when she steps inside), customers regularly bring in bags of food for her and take turns paying for her annual vet visits, and she's well loved by the bar's patronage and by the neighborhood.

Cali keeps a regular schedule: she sleeps in her heated house at the Red Carpet, is fed breakfast by staff at the bar, and then takes off to saunter around the neighborhood - often taking detours to the bakery Frutcake, where employees hand her bits of cheese out the door, and Tricky Fish, where she's given fish. She usually returns to the Carpet to meet up with some of the customers.

Debbie Greene, a Red Carpet regular, has fed Cali so many treats that the cat recognizes her truck when it pulls into the parking lot.

"I'm a treater, so she already knows me and my vehicle," she said. "She comes right up to me as I step out."

For now, though, Cali's cooped up in Duda's office above the bar during lunch hours to make sure she doesn't try to slip into the off-limits area.  

"We're calling it 'Cali's dungeon,' " Duda said. "She's banned to the dungeon for now."

Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.



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