D and I stand at a shiny stone countertop, fluorescent lights ablazing above, slowing sipping our midday pick-me-ups. Espresso for him, and hot chocolate for me. Our daily post lunch routine.
Before us, waitresses in identical uniforms parade around in their almost too-short dresses, braided ponytails swinging back and forth, the clicks of their heels matching the rhythm of their steps. All hot, leggy young things. All the right curves in all the right places. A quick scan of the room reveals that the clientele is mostly older business men, spiffy in suits and ties. Some tourists, some casual wanderers. And only a light sprinkling of female customers. But we’re all here for the same thing: a caffeine fix with a view.
I’ve never had so much hot chocolate as my time here so far in Santiago. Except for maybe that semester in 12th grade literature class, where the teacher provided us with an endless supply of instant chocolate powder and hot water. But this is way better. The best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. D says the same for the espresso, and I’m sure it’s true because I’ve never seen him drink any back in the States. This is the best $2000CLP (or $3.60US) we spend all day.
Everywhere I’ve read prior to coming to Santiago told me that the coffee is lacking here. I’m still not sure if this is true or not, but I do know that not only is the coffee totally decent here, it comes with legs.
Santiago’s café con piernas, or “coffee with legs” is a trend that started in the 1980’s, and is now a staple of the culture. Not to mention a purely Chilean phenomenon.
What it is: What better way is there than to show?
A bit of history: The first coffee cafes popped up in Santiago in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s, but back then people were happy with the instant stuff. As Chile grew their coffee culture, and graduated from instant coffee to fresh brewed Italian-style coffee, the business owner of Café Haiti (a popular coffee chain) needed something catchy to attract customers (mainly business men needing an escape from the office and home). And so in the winter of 1982, Café Haiti started serving up coffee with waitresses wearing a new uniform: short skirts and heels. It proved to be such a hit that other coffee shops and competitors had to up their ante too. Thus, a new institution was born.
These coffee shops are designed for businessmen on-the-go. You won’t find cushy armchairs or sofas here. You won’t even find any tables. Rather, customers stand at countertops, while the leggy waitresses scurry about on raised platforms behind the counters. Behind them are a row of Italian-style espresso machines, where male baristas fulfill the orders.
Business men come in for a bit of conversation with their favorite waitress (and maybe a welcome kiss on the cheek), their caffeine fix of choice, a scroll through their smartphones, and then back to work they go.
But it never seems creepy or pervy. In fact, I think the setting is rather elegant and the girls quite classy. The atmosphere is airy, fun, and relaxed. The large front doors stay open during business hours (9am-9pm) and lighting floods the cafe with brightness. The mirrored walls give even more of an illusion of spaciousness. The cafe spills out outside, where an umbrella-ed makeshift patio entertains even more customers, as they chit-chat around small round standing-height tables.
In fact, the only thing that’s creepy is probably a certain someone (ahem) sneakily taking pictures under the pretense of checking for a text on her phone. But want a picture of the girls (one that’s not secretly taken when their backs are turned)? Just ask politely :)
The two big competing chains are Café Haiti and Café Caribe. I hear that there are other less reputable café con piernas around… the kind with closed doors, reflected windows, and bouncers. The kind where girls show more skin than Victoria’s Secret models, and where coffee is only the least of the services offered. But we won’t be seeking any of those out.
Anyway, of the two reputable chains, D and I both prefer Café Haiti. We’ve been to both several times, and can conclude that not only is Café Haiti’s coffee better (or so D says.. I wouldn’t know), the girls are of higher quality. Also, Café Haiti’s girls wear a different outfit every day, and their constantly changing outfits is something to look forward to. And as far as I know, Café Caribe’s girls only wear black dresses.
Honestly though, while I can admit that I enjoy the eye candy as much as any other guy, I go for their delicious hot chocolate.
And D goes for the espresso (yeah, right).
Café Haiti and Café Caribe can be found almost anywhere on the major pedestrians streets Paseo Ahumada, Paseo Estado, and Paseo Huerfanos in Santiago Centro, and often right next to each other. Only open during business hours 9am to 9pm.
This post is part of the #sundaytraveler series. Check out this post Reserve Culture Shock: My Biggest Struggle by Pack Me To (@packmeto), and don’t forget to support all the other participating blogs (links at the bottom of post)!