Coffee with Legs, Santiago Style

by Liz Caskey on March 26, 2010

I am leaning on a faux-marble bar waiting to place my order for a simple cortado, espresso with steamed milk, the Chilean version of a half cappuccino. It is 4:00 p.m. and I am in desperate need of an afternoon caffeine rush to push through the stacks of paper on my desk. There are no seats here. Service is quick. I scan the clientele and realize that I am the only woman in the place. One of the waitresses examines me strangely as if I wandered in lost. Did I mention that all the chiquillas, girls, are all scantily clad in G-string bikinis, 4-inch platform high heels and wearing enough make-up to compete with a drag queen? Think Hooters meets Starbucks but no hot wings and more butt cleavage.  Their innocent purpose is only serving up coffee–with a view, of course.

Yasmin is a tall intensely dyed red head with crimped hair and a flashy smile. “Qué será querida?”, still eying me with curiosity. She turns around, almost swatting me in the shoulder with her bootie, strategically positioned for male patrons to ogle. She sashays along the six-inch high platform to the coffee machine to place my order. Oddly there is one wimpy-looking guy responsible for the sacred (male) job of preparing all the brewed beverages. This is still a machista country in some respects.

My coffee arrives steaming, dense as tar cut. The throbbing latino techno music is turned up a notch and red lights start flashing as if it were a semi-risqué club on a Friday night. Well it kinda is. For the uninitiated (myself included), all this super “subtle” signaling indicates that the minuto millonario (million-dollar minute) is approaching. Here the girls will bare it all and drop the last of their itty-bitty bikini tops for 60 seconds. “Patrons are you listos…” booms a DJ who I cannot see but I am definitely taking that as my cue to cut out. One last gulp of now lukewarm coffee, a luca (one thousand pesos note) on the counter, and I am out the door. So that was the famous, or infamous, Baron Rojo near the Teatro Municipal in downtown Santiago, close to my neighborhood of Lastarria.

Far from being in the red light district of Amsterdam, I am in the middle of semi-conservative Santiago, Chile. Cafes con piernas—cafes with legs—have been around in Santiago since the 1960s although Baron Rojo took it up a notch in 1995 with the girls baring more skin. Today, these brazen daytime coffee shops pepper the downtown area ranging in raciness from short skirts to early Madonna risque.  So what’s the idea behind these cafes? Horny workers needing a little mid-day “innocent” hoochie action to break up the office doldrums? Not exactly.

Believe it or not, coffee with legs are actually a dying tradition. And let’s get this straight, 95% of them are not like Barón Rojo (pardon my French but those technically should be called coffee with boobs). Let’s get a little history on this quirky Santiago institution. Fifty years ago, the downtown of Santiago was the main business hub of the city were mostly men worked in the surrounding offices. Needing some caffeine and harmless entertainment before heading home to their traditional wives and families, they would visit Italian-style coffee bars. Since the concept didn’t fly at first, the genius owner of Haiti, had the idea to use lovely bar “maids” to serve the steaming beverages.  This time the concept stuck and his business soared.

Café con piernas quickly became known by both men and women as “one of those guy things”; women brushing it off as silly male bonding, and well, the patrons of these cafes created the popular phenomenon of what could be coined as “drink, ogle, and run”. One of the keys to the popularity of the industry is the focus on “convenience”. As the owner of Baron Rojo stated in an interview with La Cuarta newspaper, “Before, a man who wanted to see a beautiful girl had to shut himself up in a nightclub, and arrive home late. Here, he drinks his coffee, and 10 minutes later, he leaves and goes home or to work. There’s nothing more to it than that.”

Not far down the street from Baron Rojo is Café Haiti. Not yet trembling from the effects of the first coffee and procrastinating on returning to the office, I decide I can handle another dose. This place is way tamer. Not even the same ball park. After all, this the pioneer coffee with legs chain. In fact, we take our guests here on tours of the downtown to and I buy my freshly ground coffee beans here.  The windows are not tinted black nor are one-sided glass mirrors. The girls are dressed in real clothing, albeit tube dresses or cutesy little uniforms. Compared to the Baron girls, these gals look like ex-nuns.

The bar is lit with overhead fluorescent lighting and I actually have a female compañeras here. The men at Haiti seem to be more interested in their puffing on their cigarettes and reviewing the sports section of the morning paper than flirting with their server. The audience here is still middle-aged to old men dressed neatly in suits. My waitress smiles to greet me and takes my order. This time I change my tune to espresso. She marches off to tell one of the 6 baristas on the brass piano-sized machines squealing with steam (all male too). In no more than 45 seconds, she brings me the coffee and some soda water. Before she takes off for the next in line, I am dying to ask her one question no one has been able to answer. “So where are the coffee with legs for us ladies?” She throws her head back and laughs. “There are none—not yet.”

Baron Rojo is now closed. Liz recommends that if you want to experience these cafes, visit Haiti or Caribe. The coffee is effectively very good, you get the sense of the institution, and let’s face it, most of us don’t want or need the strip tease.

Photo credits: Nicolás Esteven & David Lansing

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