Quirky Chile: Coffee with legs

Posted on 29. Jan, 2013 by in Chile, For foodie travelers

A few days before our departure from Buenos Aires, our friend Ashley emailed us her some recommendations for Santiago de Chile. Glancing through the list, there was one thing that caught my attention immediately: Coffee with legs. What is coffee with legs?!

It turned out that coffee with legs, or Café con piernas in Spanish, really refers to coffee shops in Chile where the waitresses wear short skirts to serve customers their coffee. Sure, the idea seemed a bit strange at first, like a caffeinated Hooters, but we had to think first that this was recommended to us by an American women. Second, if Chile was as conservative as we had heard, just how were these Cafes con piernas going to fit in the culture? So, we obviously took it upon ourselves to investigate!

coffee with legs santiago
Chile is truly a a conservative country, where not even ten years ago, divorce was still illegal, and until the early 2000s, many Hollywood movies were shown heavily censored. GLBT rights are still extremely limited as well. And yet, right on our very first stroll through downtown Santiago, we passed several of these ‘legs’ establishments and when we worked up the courage to peek inside, it quickly became clear that they are much less creepy than we had imagined. The storefronts are wide open and not only men but also many women get their caffeine fixes around the counters.

cafe con piernas santiagoThere are no tables here, instead people sip standing around the counters surrounding the Italian-style coffee makers and old-fashioned soda fountains (coffee is served with a small glass of soda water in Chile). The high walls are covered completely in mirrors, so that those would would like to can see the leggy waitresses no matter which side of the coffee shop they are facing.

cafe con piernas customersThe counter tops don’t just leave the waitresses legs exposed, but all the customers as well. Perhaps Cafe con Piernas was meant more innocently at first that you would drink your ‘cafe’ on your ‘piernas’? Good guess, but not quite.

cafe con piernas female customerIn the 1990s, a savvy Chilean businessman was tired of his countrymen drinking their instant coffee (which they most often still do) and vowed to bring Italian-style espresso bars to Chile. To get their attention and change their habits, the owner of the café had to come up with something really special and outstanding.

coffee with legs waitressConsidering it’s been almost 20 years, the idea definitely stuck! Each of the Cafe con Piernas chains has a typical outfit that all waitresses wear, from classic black cocktail dresses to short flowered dresses, but always high heels. Having been a waitress myself for many years, I couldn’t imagine running around all day in these heels!

coffee with legs santiago de chileAlthough Chilean women made a big uproar when these cafes first appeared, furious that these coffee shops used men’s fantasies to sell coffee, they seem to have mellowed significantly, as women were happily drinking coffee every time we went in or just walked by.

cafe con piernas female customersThe coffee itself is actually good, strong coffee and is so popular with the Chileans that each chain sells their own branded beans in the supermarkets here as well.

cafe con piernas coffee and cortadoThe most surprising aspect of these coffee joints is how much smoking is going on here! Chileans seems to love to smoke, and drinking coffee in here felt like taking a trip in a time machine to the innocent times when no one knew smoking is not good for you!

cafe con piernas customersA local friend revealed that there are indeed much seedier versions of these cafes, where women wear bikinis (or less) instead of dresses and there is some sort of random ‘happy minute’ where they remove their tops for anyone who happens to be there. These places tend to have closed doors and blackened windows, unlike the bright and airy cafes on the main drags throughout town.

The Machismo! outcry of the women is much clearer in these circumstances, and there are constant battles to have them shut down and we can definitely see why. However, the ‘normal’ Cafe con Piernas spots seem to be strangely beloved in modern day Chile and we loved discovering more about this unique and quirky institution.

cafe con piernas cafe caribe

Where to find a Café con piernas in Santiago

Café Caribe and Café Haiti are the two most omnipresent Café con piernas chains and can be found everywhere along the pedestrian shopping streets in Santiago, Chile.
cafe haitiWhat is your opinion about these Cafes? Would you stop in to have a coffee here?

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29 Responses to “Quirky Chile: Coffee with legs”

  1. Bethaney

    29. Jan, 2013

    It’s a cute idea and doesn’t seem overly pervy. They’re just legs. It’s not like it’s “coffee with boobs”. ;)
    Bethaney recently posted..Spotlight on New Zealand

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  2. Shalu Sharma

    30. Jan, 2013

    Very fascinating. The only reason for their short skirts is that they attract male customers. Why else would they wear it? Seems as if women and coffee are commodities. Great article.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..Can a woman pee like a man – female urination devices for your travels to India?

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    • Jess

      30. Jan, 2013

      True about the skirts, yet really there are about 35-40% women in there every time we walk by, just chatting and smoking away! ;)

      Reply to this comment
  3. Geoff

    30. Jan, 2013

    I did go out of curiosity to one of the ‘seedier’ Cafes con piernas (and I do mean curiosity – as a gay man neither verson is likely to titillate me!).

    There are many of them, and are mostly in the basements of shopping arcades. The one we went to, there were several in the same basement.

    They do indeed have darkened windows, and the women wear very small bikini tops. But the atmosphere is still a very Chilean, conservative one – it was far removed from similar, alcohol-fuelled go-go bars that you’d find in Europe & South East Asia. They were full of groups of Chilean men in suits chatting to the women over coffee.

    I went in with a swedish, female tourist and a male peruvian. Interestingly no-one batted any eye at the presence of a female customer, and the Peruvian was incredibly shocked – for all of Chile’s conservative reputation he was adamant that Peru would never allow such a thing! We chatted quite a bit to a few of the women working there over coffee, and the whole thing definitely felt less sleazy than I’d been expecting.
    Geoff recently posted..Olympic Park from the air

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  4. Jessica

    30. Jan, 2013

    It’s funny because I feel like servers wearing short skirts in cafes and restaurants is common in many places all over the world, but it usually happens without anyone drawing attention to it as a tactic to draw in customers, and it’s rarely advertised blatantly. It’s kind of cute that these cafes are making it into an actual thing.
    Jessica recently posted..A Little Love for Puglia

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    • Jess

      04. Feb, 2013

      Hey Jessica – right, and these dresses are actually no more than what people wear on the street, it’s just drawing attention to their legs.

      Reply to this comment
  5. Simon

    30. Jan, 2013

    To be clear: I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this. I wish to make no moral judgements, just an observation

    Perhaps both men and women are both exploited in little ways like this and perhaps that’s OK provided it doesn’t go that far.

    However, I would argue that this is exploitation. The simple fact that women are in there enjoying their coffee says more about the permissiveness of this kind of exploitation within a culture than it does about whether or not said exploitation is actually exploitation at all.

    What would happen if one of these women were involved in an accident and one of her legs were replaced with a prosthetic? Now, whether or not she was great at her job as a barista is irrelevant—she’s gonna get fired.

    Her skills aren’t as important as the way she looks and the net effect is that the idea that a women’s looks are more important than her abilities in the workplace become more prevalent in the culture, and that implied difference in the sexes when it comes to work—that extra hurdle that a woman has to overcome—is reinforced in everyone.

    If you’re female, being good ain’t enough, you’ve got to look good too.

    Again, there are probably plenty of sexist assumptions that I continue to make on a daily basis that no one but the most ardent feminist would ever see. Perhaps women are able to exploit me as a man in different ways in different parts of life to further their own aims, thereby balancing the equation.

    Personally, I would prefer to be judged on skills over looks, but maybe that’s simply because I don’t look like George Clooney and, if I did, perhaps I’d use that to get ahead too.

    Reply to this comment
    • Jess

      04. Feb, 2013

      Simon, Simon, Simon…I agree with you and then I don’t and then I do again. I’d argue that while this could be a low level of exploitation, by women also enjoying their coffee here it is not indicative of permissiveness but perhaps the opposite, taking it back, owning it. Entry into what was once an old boys club, perhaps, that is now open to everyone. And while you’re right about the prosthetic leg scenario, if I lost my hand I wouldn’t be a very good blogger, either (except I wouldn’t fire myself, either, so there’s that hole in my analogy already). My point is that by the same rationale, manual laborers are also being exploited as if they lose legs or arms they won’t be able to mine/dig/build either, no?

      Do not misunderstand me, on almost every level I agree that you’re totally spot on, and I suppose the main reason why I participated in this situation (besides the fact that my girlfriend thought this was AWESOME :) ) is that it is a part of everyday Santiago culture and relatively low on the seedy scale as compared to models, actresses, strippers, etc.

      ps you’re a ROCK star (we saw that great post about your pre-nomad life, you know) so you can use that to get ahead ;)

      Reply to this comment
  6. I wanted to stop by this place when I was in Santiago, but didn’t have the time. Great shots!!! I agree with Simon, but well the world is a sexist place.
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..Andi’s Pick: Inn On Biltmore Estate

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  7. Kim

    02. Feb, 2013

    Wow, had no idea. At the same time, that’s just sort of a normal outfit in a lot of parts of the world, isn’t it??? It’s sort of a funny concept, definitely ain’t no Hooters. (Hooters has always pissed me off, I’d NEVER go there, but this… I’d go. Maybe I’m a hypocrite?)

    Reply to this comment
    • Jess

      04. Feb, 2013

      Nah, you’re not a hypocrite at all. It’s a tough call on a lot of levels, but really, look at how moderately these women are dressed in actual fact, right! Also, hooters is called HOOTERS. Not ‘breasts’. It’s not like this is called Coffee with Gams or some other sort of derogatory name. It’s just coffee with legs.

      Reply to this comment
  8. Sam

    04. Feb, 2013

    I really dislike indoor places where people are smoking, I don’t drink coffee, and I’m not particularly interested in looking at women’s legs, yet somehow, these places sound fascinating! Looking forward to discovering some when we’re in Santiago!
    Sam recently posted..Travel Diary: 2013, Week #5

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  9. Ashley

    07. Feb, 2013

    Great Post! These places struck me as more of an oddity than sexualized sin spots. We didn’t visit any seedy ones, just the larger, tamer ones. For those, I felt it was fine. Everyone working there is an adult who knowingly applied to the establishment. And the requirements of the job are obvious from the start. Also, they’re legs. I think I’ll reserve my pearl clutching and smelling salts for something that actually warrants shock, not giggles. :)

    Reply to this comment
    • Jess

      11. Feb, 2013

      You’re hilarious! :) Definitely agree with you on this Ashley. At first we thought this would feel a bit dirty, etc, but in the end, it was totally fine and again, pretty good coffee!

      Reply to this comment
  10. Naomi

    09. Feb, 2013

    I used to study in Santiago and I remember walking by them innocently curious but never having the guts to enter. Why would an Asian college kid enter a Cafe con Piernas? But I imagine espresso would be better than instant coffee. BTW, was the recommendation from Ashley from The Middle Finger Project?
    Naomi recently posted..Travel with A Sense of Purpose

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    • Dani

      10. Feb, 2013

      I wouldn’t have gone in by myself either – I would’ve been way too embarrassed :D The recommendation was from another Ashley, but we’ve stumbled upon Ashley from The Middle Finger quite a few times recently!! :)

      Reply to this comment
  11. Florian

    14. Feb, 2013

    Love Café con Piernas!

    Btw, in the smaller more shadier Cafés, the waitresses wear less and sexier things (like bunny ears). But still people seem to go there only to talk. It’s a daytime thing after all.

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      14. Feb, 2013

      Really?? Interesting! We walked by one of the seedier ones in on one of the arcades around the Plaza De Armas when the door opened and it looked like the waitress in the bikini was giving someone a lap dance – but everything happened so fast, we didn’t really see all that much.

      Reply to this comment
      • Florian

        14. Feb, 2013

        Wow, I didn’t see a lapdance. Just clients getting very very close to the girls, when talking. And nipple covers instead of bikinis.

        I’ll probably come over as a pervert, but I intend to ask them if I can take a picture next week in Santiago (-;
        Florian recently posted..Ende der Panamericana in Chiloe

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  12. Robert

    20. Apr, 2013

    I remember visiting this place when I was in Santiago. It sure was busy.
    Robert recently posted..Lost in the Cu Chi Tunnels

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  13. gabriel

    01. Feb, 2014

    ESOS CAFES CON PIERNAS SON LOS MAS DECENTES QUE HAY, LOS OTROS QUE SE ENCUENTRAN EN LAS GALERIAS, HAY MINUTO FELIZ Y LAS MUJERES ANDAN EN BIKINI, NO TIENEN IDEA QUE ES SER TURISTA.

    Reply to this comment
  14. Gabriela

    02. Feb, 2014

    Hmmm I got really surprised. I’m from Chile and “coffee with legs” is something completely different. Or maybe the one you depicted in this entry is really a “coffee with legs”, and the places I’ve seen are “almost-naked-coffee”, because Their doors are usually closed and the waitresses work wearing their undies. YES, underwear… sexy underwear or string bikinis.
    It’s always nice to read a travellers blog. Stay safe, hugs n kisses!

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      03. Feb, 2014

      We had a private tour guide for one day in Santiago and he told us that the big chains (Haiti, Caribe, etc) are normal cafes- and we saw tons of women in there every time we went and every time we walked by them – but that the ones in the galleries around the Plaza Central where you can’t look inside are the sleazier versions you mention – with string tangas and bikinis :) He offered us to take us to one of them but we didn’t think they were appropriate for girls to visit ;-)

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