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Meet The Most Cherished Regular At Cary’s Lounge In West Ridge: Mel The Bar Cat

The bar with one of Chicago's most beloved cats will throw a party, dubbed Malörtopia, Saturday to celebrate 50 years in West Ridge.

Mel the cat sits at the bar at Cary’s Lounge, 2251 W. Devon Ave., in West Ridge on May 18, 2022 before the establishment’s “Malörtöpia” event.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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WEST RIDGE — Cary’s Lounge’s most popular regular doesn’t drink. But he does kill rats. 

Mel, a middle-aged fluffball with a killer’s instinct, has patrolled Cary’s Lounge, 2251 W. Devon Ave., since the bar’s owner, Peter Valavanis, brought him on in 2017. 

“He’s our head of security,” Valavanis said. “And he’s got one good fang left.” 

The cat is feared by rodents and beloved by drinkers, Valavanis said. He’s a softie around people, jumping onto stools and into laps for the emotional support needed to down Malört.

Mel has been “good for business,” Valavanis said. Patrons sneak him snacks and sometimes a sip of their drink. 

“He turns his nose up to it. He’s not a fan of Malört, but he is a fan of Malört drinkers,” Valavanis said. “I can’t imagine the bar without him. He’s part of the atmosphere. He’s a part of the room. He’s the fixture.” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Bar owner Pete Valavanis poses for a photo while Mel the cat sits at the bar at Cary’s Lounge, 2251 W. Devon Ave., in West Ridge on May 18, 2022 before the establishment’s “Malörtöpia” event.

With Mel keeping the place clean and perimeters secure, Cary’s Lounge will mark its 50th anniversary this summer. To celebrate, the bar is throwing a party dubbed Malörtopia 4 p.m.-midnight Saturday. The bash includes live music, raffles, food, Malört cocktails and, of course, the bar cat.

Mel “is going to absolutely be there,” said Donna von Walters, a Cary’s Lounge regular and de facto events planner. She’ll try her best to “put a Malört bandana on him, cautiously.” 

“He’s just so cute, such a mush,” von Walters said. “You can find him sitting on the ‘chosen ones’ laps. He’ll choose you.” 

Valavanis said his parents, Greek immigrants Cary and Argie Valavanis, opened the bar in 1972. He has run the place since 1989. 

“I just got here today, and Mel has not been fed. And he’s letting me know,” Valavanis said on the phone. “Can I call you back in two minutes?” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Mel the cat indulges in a mound of catnip at Cary’s Lounge, 2251 W. Devon Ave., in West Ridge on May 18, 2022.

Before Mel’s debut, Cary’s Lounge was dealing with “the fact that Chicago is overrun with rats,” Valavanis said. The rodents were taking territory from the patio and beer garden, he said. 

Valavanis caught wind of the Tree House Community Cats Program, which matches business with feral cats. 

In 2017, the program dispatched three cats to Cary’s Lounge. Valavanis leaned against the bar and asked a regular what he should name them. 

They settled on Melvina, Paulina and Lunt.

“It’s an old North Side joke,” Valavanis said. “Name three streets in Chicago that rhyme with a woman’s body part.” 

Paulina and Lunt quickly ran away — “but Mel came back,” Valavanis said.

“I think Mel chased them out. He was a little bigger than the other cats,” Valavanis said. “He wanted the bar all to himself.” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Mel the cat sits at the bar at Cary’s Lounge, 2251 W. Devon Ave., in West Ridge on May 18, 2022.

Mel likes to rotate between lounging on a blanket in the corner, under the pool table and atop his favorite barstool “closest to the door,” Valavanis said. The cat also has a heated house on the outside staircase. 

At first, Mel was uncongenial and “completely feral,” Valavanis said. “He’d hiss at you.” 

Over the years, he warmed up and “started to befriend everybody,” Valavanis said. 

“He now hangs out with us on the patio, sits next to you on a barstool, and if he wants something, he’ll just tap you with his paw,” Valavanis said. “I think this guy hit the lottery. He’s well-fed and gets tons of attention.” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Bar owner Pete Valavanis sits with Mel the cat at Cary’s Lounge, 2251 W. Devon Ave., in West Ridge on May 18, 2022.

Mel solved the bar’s rat problem, Valavanis said. In his prime, he’d kill one or two a day. 

Now, “he’s gotten a little chunkier, but still gets a rat here and there,” Valavanis said. Mel is “more of a house cat these days,” he said. 

Von Walters thought Mel was so cute, she made him his own Instagram page

“The cat is a companion. You always got someone here. It’s like home. When you go home and somebody’s there for you, there’s a comfort there,” Valavanis said. “Come visit him. He loves the attention.” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A bottle of Jeppson’s Malört while Mel the cat naps at Cary’s Lounge, 2251 W. Devon Ave., in West Ridge on May 18, 2022.

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