Chile's Racy Coffee Shops: Making Hooters Look Tame

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Tejal Rao


Two minutes ago, I was in front of the Palacio de la Moneda, in Santiago, Chile, standing in the sun with well-fed stray dogs, looking for the window of President Salvador Allende's office, where he died in 1973. Now I'm in a dark room surrounded by women in glow-in-the-dark thongs and the smoke's so heavy I can hardly breathe. I'm in a tunneled strip mall in the city center, in an unnamed coffee shop marked with a single sign: abierto. Open.

My waitress's white g-string glows in the black light. Her stockings too, which reach up her thighs and connect via a proper six-strap garter belt. As she leans over to serve the suits on the other side of the room, she casually gives my side of the horseshoe bar a view of her bare bottom. Then she greets me formally, with two kisses, and asks me how I am, as if we were old friends.

There's a dominatrix in a black pleather and lace two-piece upstairs and she's carrying a tray of stacked espresso cups and saucers, grinning.

This is a particularly saucy café con piernas, a type of coffee shop in Santiago where the waitresses wear skimpy outfits (the name translates to "coffee with legs"). These coffee shops are a Chilean cultural phenomenon, varying in degrees of nudity. They don't serve alcohol and they maintain coffee shop hours, closing around 8 or 9 in the evening. At some, the waitresses look like dreamy flight attendants—tight, red shift dresses down to their knees. At others, the windows are blacked out, the walls mirrored, and the waitresses wear little more than underthings.

There's a dominatrix in a black pleather and lace two-piece upstairs and she's carrying a tray of stacked espresso cups and saucers, grinning. And there's a 20-something schoolgirl in knee socks and tartan knickers, bringing coffee and sparkling water to a group of businessmen. It's 4 o' clock on a Friday and these guys have clearly come straight from the office. Most of them aren't actually staring at the women; they're standing at the bar, talking to each other, lighting cigarettes and slim cigars. They're done for the day.

"Do you need sugar?" my waitress asks when she turns back, and she's got a squeeze-tube of simple syrup in her hand.

She says her name is Candy, points to her gold necklace to show that it's short for Candida. She's 21, has worked here a few months, and loves her job. The money and the hours are decent. And the men—she's surprised that I ask—don't give her any trouble. She's a student at a local college, studying physical education. She wants to become a personal trainer.

By the time I leave, I'm dizzy from the smoke, the flashing tile floors, and the infinite reflections of smooth, tanned bottoms on the mirrored walls. I never want to hear Rihanna again.

"How was the coffee?" my Chilean friend asks.

Hey, the coffee was actually pretty good!

"They are some of the best places for coffee around here," my friend says. "Is there somewhere that compares in America?"

As we walk down a beautiful cobbled street, the spindrift of a plaza fountain catches the light and tiny rainbows chisel away at the church facade. I find myself hollering, "Oh yeah, Hooters!"

Though there was until recently a Hooters in Santiago, my friend never went. I explain its cultural significance: In Atlanta, I say, as the boys turned 18, off they went to Hooters, to officiate their manhood with deep-fried chicken wings and fried pickles. It became their tradition.

"And the wings at Hooters, they're actually pretty good."

"International business strategy," shrugs my friend. "You go for the girls but you stay for the coffee. Or is it the other way around?"

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Tejal Rao

Tejal Rao is a writer and translator from Northwest London, living in
Brooklyn. She is a restaurant critic for the Village Voice. Follow her on Twitter or learn more at www.tejalrao.com.

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