Life has a funny way of working out. One day you’re befriending a large group of Chileans at a boutique kitesurfing resort in northern Peru, and the next you’re standing in a dingy hole-in-the-wall with them, deep in Santiago’s underbelly, being caressed softly by the scantily-clad server delivering the worst espresso you’ve ever tasted. But then again, one doesn’t go to a café con piernas (literally, ‘coffee with legs’) for the crema.
To be fair, my friends didn’t want to bring me here; in fact leading their visiting American friend to the seedy dives on her only day in their city made them highly uncomfortable. But I had requested a coffee and in return – half-jokingly – was asked: a normal coffee or an illegal one? Once I found out that these cafés con piernas not only existed, but thrived in – and only in – Santiago, there was no way we were not delving in to see what all the fuss was about. A little bit of grit in South America’s most conservative capital? Sí, porfa.
So a special shoutout goes to Rodrigo and Jorge, who against their best judgement, helped me discover the highly ridiculous but somehow totally logical strip club meets coffee shop during my 24 hours in the Chilean capital. These are the discoveries worth traveling for. The completo hot dogs found everywhere there, that absolutely drown in pools of mayonesa y aguacate, don’t hurt either.
This story was published here in Roads & Kingdoms; one of my favorite sites for alternative travel stories from around the globe – of which the late and great Anthony Bourdain was a primary sponsor and Editor at Large.
WE COULD HAVE TOLD YOU PEOPLE DON’T GO THERE FOR THE COFFEE
It was 11 a.m. when the pounding in my head seemed to sync with the thumping techno and strobe lights illuminating an otherwise dark room. I had a flashback of the previous night’s dance club until a server, who delivered my piping hot espresso in a blacklight-activated thong and soaring platform boots, snapped me back to reality.
We were in Café Alibaba, a café con piernas—or “coffee with legs,” a Chilean institution where revealingly dressed waitresses serve cortados in establishments ranging from classy to clandestine, wearing skin-tight miniskirts or scandalous lingerie. (They don’t serve alcohol.) These joints, as prevalent as Starbucks in other cities, may seem at odds with Chile’s reputation as one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries, but then again, perhaps they make perfect sense for that reason.
I had just 24 hours to explore the city and my two local hosts, Rodrigo and Jorge, had promised a whirlwind tour. That morning, after an obligatory stroll by the impressive Palacio de La Moneda and a breakfast of the city’s ubiquitous completo hot dogs, piled high with smashed avocado and swimming in pools of mayonnaise, I begged for caffeine to help me recover from the night before.
Rodrigo suggested heading to a café con piernas. Café Caribe, around the corner from us, was one of the more upscale options. I lingered at the brightly lit bar watching women in thigh-baring uniforms sling caffeinated beverages to a predominantly male clientele. Intrigued, I suggested we head somewhere less upmarket. Five minutes later, we escaped the weekday hustle of downtown Santiago and beelined for the tinted windows of Café Alibaba.
The original, and more wholesome, cafés con piernas date back to the 1960s. The story goes that servers in short skirts were meant to attract customers into the new Italian-style espresso shops springing up in downtown Santiago, in a country fond of instant coffee. It wasn’t until after Chile’s military dictatorship ended in 1990 that the tinted windows and skimpier clothing appeared. Café Barón Rojo, which opened in 1994, is credited with setting the standard for the more risqué versions. (It closed down in 2005.)
Inside Café Alibaba, black walls danced with neon lights like an adults-only laser tag arena. I shouted my order over the raging dance music before settling into the last free nook in a cramped room.
Servers strutted about in barely-there bikinis and heels so high my feet ached at the sight of them. The place resembled a daytime strip club, but with caffeine instead of cocktails, and flirting rather than dancing. I surveyed the businessmen on coffee breaks, and wondered aloud if they weren’t nervous about being caught here during work hours. The server who brought me my coffee laughed, and told me the men were likely to run into their bosses inside one.
I took a sip of my espresso, and immediately spit it out. But people probably don’t come here for the coffee.
Café Alibaba (Local 151)
Galería Santiago Centro
Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins 949, Santiago, Chile
9 a.m. – 9 p.m.
On a side note: I received a comment when this came out about how sad it is that commercializing women’s bodies is such a lucrative industry. While I wouldn’t argue this statement generally speaking, when it comes to café con piernas culture,the issue a bit more complex. When speaking candidly with my server in the café, and through various interviews I have read, the jobs appear to be highly-coveted – opening up job opportunities where women make a healthy income on a more or less regular daytime schedule, and without the less desirable effects of working in a strip club; they do not remove their clothes entirely and there are strict rules in place about touching and propositioning the servers beyond their duties of delivering caffeine with a side of light flirtation. Just some café for thought.