The Island is known for its iconic animals. There’s the black dog, the flying horse, the Jaws shark. But long ago, there was also a red cat. According to Island lore, she was a handsome young gal with fiery red hair who tickled the fancy of Stan Hart, Island bibliophile, sailor and author, who died in 2010.
First, the Red Cat was a 50-foot schooner Mr. Hart sailed “near and far,” according to his obituary published in the Gazette. In 1960, Mr. Hart opened a bookstore with the same name. It was lauded as a “place without pretense, where Vineyarders could comfortably relate with summer folk.”
Visitors knew the Red Cat by a “small figure of a jaunty red cat with a sly wink that hangs over the doorway.”
Then, in 1995, the Red Cat opened as a restaurant in West Tisbury where State Road Restaurant now stands. The restaurant was always crowded and full of energy.
“It was very casual, very delicious and it was a wonderful community place to go,” said Fan Ogilvie, who used to frequent the restaurant with her friends and family.
When the Red Cat closed in 1999, the Cat went into a long hibernation. But this summer the Cat has reappeared in Oak Bluffs. Above the bar at the Red Cat Kitchen at Ken ‘n’ Beck, she is pictured on all fours, devouring a bright blue fish. Even more important, the original Red Cat chef is back in the kitchen looking to reconnect with the past, his culinary one at least.
“This place just felt like the Red Cat to me,” said Chef Ben deForest, who is reinventing the restaurant this year in the former home of Zapotec restaurant. “It has a porch, and there’s really no level plane. It feels quirky and original.”
Mr. deForest ran the kitchen at the Red Cat for five summers. In the summer of 1997, President Bill Clinton dined there and reportedly bought a Red Cat hat.
“It was a great era, a great time in my life,” Mr. deForest said. He was 26 years old on opening day of the old Red Cat — July 11, 1995. “It was a lot of mayhem back then,” he said. “We played as hard as we worked, and we worked really hard. It was certainly not for the weak of heart.”
The Speakeasy downstairs was known for its unruly clientele.
“When they tore the building down, I told the new owners to bring in a shaman to exorcise the space,” he joked. “If those walls could speak, we’d all be in a lot of trouble.”
But the new Red Cat is an opportunity to break away from that reputation. “As you get older, you get wiser, and hopefully that will shine through,” he said. “I feel like I’ve hit some level of humility with myself. I was in my 20’s back then, now I’m 43.”
Jim Gibson, who worked in the Red Cat kitchen when he was 19, is back as a bartender at the new location.
“It’s a little more sedated in my eyes,” he said. “We are a little bit older, a little more professional. We’re still having a great time, and the food has gotten better as time has gone by.”
Richard Small, a server at the original Red Cat, is also back.
A majority of Mr. deForest’s clients today are Red Cat fans from years ago, he said. “It’s just been nice to see old faces and people who have been eating my food for years.”
Ms. Ogilvie dined at the Red Cat Kitchen last week with friends. “It’s nice when you feel known in some way,” she said. “When you go to Ben’s place, you generally get a hello or a nod. It’s nice to have that Cheers kind of feeling.”
She ordered her favorite deForest specialty — the Island Fresca, a soup made to order with fresh corn, tomatoes and herbs. Her friend had broiled cod, and another friend dined on strip steak, which she said was a “huge piece, cooked perfectly.” The fresca and the seared scallops with sweet corn risotto both appeared on the 90’s menu.
Ms. Ogilvie is pleased that the Red Cat name has been preserved. “I love that people keep those traditions alive,” she said. “If you have grown up with it, you love seeing it again. That’s what’s wonderful about the Vineyard. The memory is really deep.”
Mr. deForest looks forward to a lively summer at the Red Cat Kitchen. “People love to sit around and eat and drink wine,” he said. “That’s really where generations are bridged.”
Longtime Red Cat fan Rez Williams agreed. “I think it’s a perfect space for him to experiment,” he said. Mr. Williams’ boat paintings hang on the walls of the restaurant. “The space is intimate, and he can really take liberties there where he couldn’t in a larger and more constrained environment.”