My Two Cents: Café con Piernas – Legs with your Coffee?
Here, south of the equator, a Café con Piernas could make any Hooters girl blush.
From my North American perspective, Chile is relatively conservative at times. Things of a sexual or illicit nature are not often talked about openly, they are alluded to through crafty turns of phrase. When men flirt on the street, it is with a whistle and a comment, but if you look them dead in the eye or responded, there is a good chance they will look away. Classic traditional values are well represented through food, religion, and the evident machismo throughout society. Abortion is illegal, but on the other hand, prostitution is technically legal.
Chile is fascinating country progressing both economically and socially, while its heart still remains steeped in tradition and family. That is why I was somewhat surprised to stumble upon something called Café con Piernas. I have somewhat likened it to Hooters back in the states. The goal is similar, serve up something delicious, while providing patrons with something to look at as well.
Literally translated to “coffee with legs”, these cafés provide just that; legs with your 9 a.m. cappuccino. If you are curious and have decided that you must see one of these for yourself, keep in mind that there are three distinct levels of these places.
The first is relatively tame. Cafés like Haití and Caribe serve up quality coffee in a low-key setting. The women who serve the coffee just happen to be wearing short tight dresses and heels. In fact, according to Chileans, these places do not qualify as a Café con Piernas. In my opinion, they do. Any place that is blatantly sexist, where women are there to not only serve coffee, but show off their piernas while doing so, should qualify.
The second form is a true Café con Piernas. Servers and baristas here typically range from 20 to 26 years old, and wear some form of bikini or lingerie ensemble. Customers are welcome to engage the girls in conversation, and even touch them, as I saw.
These cafés can be recognized by the fact the all windows facing the outside are heavily tinted or covered with advertisements. Plaza de las Armas houses quite a selection dispersed throughout the area. I made the mistake of telling the male owner that I was a journalist upon finding him. He was quick to refuse an interview, tell me to not take pictures, and that he was “too busy” serving coffee so I could feel free to leave. The girls however, were quite friendly, immediately greeting me with a kiss and asking me what I would like to drink.
Personally, I found the café to be seedy and disturbing. It certainly did not smell like a coffee shop, and I was shocked at how packed with men the small room was considering I wandered in at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday. As a woman, I just can’t imagine wanting to take my mid-day coffee break in a stuffy, cigarette-filled, dimly-lit room, just so I could slowly caress the busty woman who walks past me.
Then again, these establishments are not catered to women, who are already frustrated with the rampant machismo still seen in Chile. For many Chilean men and tourists alike, Cafés con Piernas are considered a classic way to get some coffee and see some skin.
The third level of Café con Piernas can be found with curtained windows, dark ultraviolet lighting inside, and music. Here baristas are very attentive and clients are there to have a cappuccino, and something more. These establishments are not technically considered to be Cafés con Piernas, but more Cafés con Companía, or Coffee shops with company. The one I discovered, though, did have a full espresso bar and some very happy-looking patrons.
While Cafés con Piernas are not exactly my style, I’m glad I went and saw another side to Chilean culture, and finally learned what all the hype is about. After all, these cafés are, for the most part, a uniquely Chilean phenomenon, and are quite prevalent throughout Santiago and other cities.