How do you take your coffee? With cream? Sugar? With legs? Café con piernas, Spanish for “coffee with legs,” is a beloved fixture of Santiago, Chile that hinges on women in dresses with short hemlines and plunging necklines serving caffeinated beverages.
Café Haiti, the original café con piernas, opened its doors in 1970. Alfredo Manbor, the founder of Café Haiti, owned a traditional Italian style café in Milan before immigrating to Santiago. Chile had more of a tea culture from its British influence, and is to this day the country that consumes the most tea in South America. Nescafé and instant coffee also have a stronghold on the general populations’ coffee tastes; about 90% of the population still drinks predominantly instant coffee. Chileans were a bit slow to warm up to the concept Café Haiti was bringing to the table, but Manbor soon recognized that his clientele was mostly men. So he hired female servers and had them start wearing dresses with a sophisticated sex appeal. It was a massive success. Now, the family-run business is booming with 12 locations throughout Santiago.
General manager Magdalena Charme said that Café Haiti introduced the first real café in Santiago, thus pioneering the coffee culture in Chile. They roast their own blend of beans that are sold in stores and served in their cafés. Locations downtown are blocks away from each other and heaving with customers. People stand, conversing as they sip on espresso and cappuccinos. Charme said they are popular meeting places for their diverse clientele of men and women, from bohemian writers to ministers.
When I walked into my first Café Haiti I was immediately reminded of cafés from Italy—the marble counters, the smell of espresso filling the air, the hum of top-of-the-line espresso machines. The environment is pristine and welcoming. The espresso that I drank was smooth and well-rounded. They only serve espresso drinks, no food or anything else, so the product has to be good. The sultry staff was friendly and courteous. The gals looked classy, nothing like the kind of Hooters of South America that some might think. There is a refinement to the sex appeal, the kind of place that James Bond himself would cherish.
After the dictatorship and overbearing laws started to fizzle out during the ‘90s, the café con piernas idea was taken a step farther with the opening of cafés with polarized or black windows. Behind darkened glass the gals are adorned in skimpy string bikinis. Men can order lap dances to accompany their cup of pick-me-up. The one that I visited was in the same gallery of shops as a Café Haiti, but the experiences were a world apart. The Café Haiti locations have large translucent windows and a presentation that’s more about the coffee, less about the girls. The scantily clad version of café con piernas felt more like divey strip clubs, only with no alcohol, just coffee. They are open for business during the day closing around 9 pm.
Stepping into the continual dusk of an 18-years-and-up location felt like I had stumbled into a trucker’s strip joint off some weird back highway in Florida. The gals were sweet, if a bit confused by the appearance of a single woman in the black-light glow of their establishment. But the café cortado that I ordered was pretty crap, and it was definitely the kind of place that felt like some sketchy stuff could go down.
Café Haiti, I would like to state clearly, has nothing to do with this kind of shadiness, they want nothing to do with the “other” kind of establishments. Charme said it’s like mixing oil with water.
Café Haitis are coffee shops infused with attention to detail, from the selection of their beans, to the classy high-heels the women wear. As Charme said, “No soy feminitsa y tampoco machista, pero creo que a todo el mundo le gusta ver algo agradable.” Translation: “I’m not sexist, but I believe that all the world likes to see something nice.”