Snapshots from Chile: Café con Piernas
From April 13 to 19, I traveled around Chile with two other American food journalists on a culinary media trip. Here's another snapshot from that week. —Robyn Lee
"They don't serve any alcohol?" asked Jenn incredulously.
"No," insisted Carolina, our Chilean host. "They just serve coffee."
Jenn, Wes and I—the clueless Americans in Chile—were befuddled by the Chilean institution that is café con piernas, or "coffee with legs." Think Hooters, but with a focus on long legs and dainty cups of coffee instead of boobs and chicken wings. Sex appeal sans booze? Interesting. As these cafes have been around since the 1960s, the formula of coffee and legs must work pretty well.
Although visiting one of these cafes wasn't part of our original itinerary—methinks it doesn't qualify as one of the foremost attractions that the Chilean government wants to promote to outsiders—we made it a point to visit Cafe Caribe, just one of many of these types of cafes near Plaza de Armas, the main square in downtown Santiago.
The bright and spacious mirror-lined interior, which looked like it hadn't changed since the 70s, consisted of a long, winding counter for customers to stand in front of while enjoying their drinks. Behind the counter, waitresses in skin-tight red tube dresses and nude-colored tights milled about in semi-high heels while balancing cups on saucers. Although the dresses just barely covered the nether regions, the top was conservative, with necklines that came up to...well, the neck. You won't find any cleavage here.
The clientèle was, unsurprisingly, mostly men, but women certainly wouldn't be refused a caffeine fix as well. And in a country dominated by Nescafe* (although the coffee choices are getting better these days), it's a place where you know you can get a good cup of coffee. I opted for a hot chocolate, which tasted mostly of cocoa and required the addition of a few prolonged shakes from the sugar dispenser.
The dress code varies depending on what cafe you're in; I suspect I saw the most tame of the lot. Although Carolina had never been to a cafe with blackened windows, she told us that these more risqué cafes potentially have mirrored floors and something called "happy minute." She didn't explain this minute of happiness in great detail, but we could use our imaginations.
Note: At the first hotel we stayed at in Santiago, each room came equippped with a Mr. Coffee machine accompanied by a single pack of Nescafe. Why have a full-blown coffee machine when it comes with instant coffee? We didn't ask.
Cafes...with legs [Salon.com]
Hooters Try This on For Size - Coffee With Legs In Santiago, Chile [The Chile Information Project]
Out on a limb for coffee with legs [San Francisco Chronicle]