You want legs with that?

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:00 03/10/2012
chile

SANTIAGO STYLE: Cafe con Piernas, or the cafe with legs.

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If you don't speak Spanish it sounds quite nice: cafe con piernas. It could be a lovely little place down by the water, this mysterious cafe, or maybe a hole-in-the-wall joint with the city's best espresso. You'd happily go to check out cafe con piernas, to see what one of the city's attractions is all about.

But you'd get a shock. Because that's not the story of cafe con piernas.

It's a cool morning in Santiago, the Chilean capital, and workers are bustling through the city streets, ducking in and out of office blocks. There's a haze of smog shrouding the buildings, blocking the sight of the snow-capped Andes that usually crowds the horizon.

The presidential palace is just around the corner; Chile's former National Congress building and its Supreme Court are similarly close. This is Santiago's central business district, a hub for multinational companies and global names.

If there's anything that marks this district out as being any different from the hundreds of other city centres like it around the world, it might be the presence of cafe con piernas. Not that you'd know it was there.

Nothing about Cafe Bombay seems particularly remarkable, or gives away the difference on the inside. Its heavy doors are constantly swinging open and closed this morning as men in suits and ties stream in and out, looking to get their coffee fix in Santiago style.

Just like the city outside, there's a haze hanging over the scene in the cafe, although this is cigarette smoke rather than smog. It's thick and cloying.

The first thing you clock is the clientele: men. Exclusively men, some relaxing with ties loosened, others deep in what are probably very important conversations, still others just smoking and staring.

The second thing you clock is the staff: women. Exclusively women, and all dressed in a slightly racier manner than their clients. They've all got the same short, tight dresses on; they've all got the same voluptuous, curvy figures. They float around the room delivering coffees and smiles while the men just sit and ogle.

Cafe con piernas - it means "coffee with legs", hot beverages delivered by attractive women, and it's a phenomenon that Santiago, for better or worse, can boast as its own.

But wait: isn't Santiago boring? That's what you'll hear from a lot of visitors. Compared with most other South American cities, the Chilean capital is safe and efficient, which translates to the B-word for those who thrive on the wild unpredictability of the Limas and Sao Paulos of the Latin world.

There are edgy, interesting suburbs in Santiago but for the most part it really can come across as lacking in spark. So how do you explain cafe con piernas?

It mightn't be to everyone's taste - this is, after all, South America's answer to Hooters, the American den of fast food and pervy exploitation. And the cafes in Santiago do differ greatly in the class factor. Some, such as Cafe Bombay, are merely coffee shops with waitresses dressed not dissimilarly to some you'd find in Sydney; others in Santiago's less reputable districts are sleazy fronts for prostitution.

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But cafe con piernas is a genuine part of Chilean culture and it's interesting to find something that can gently chip away at a place's stereotypes.

Boring? Not Cafe Bombay.

It doesn't work like a normal cafe. First you have to go to a small counter and place your order - no food here, just a basic "cortado", an espresso with a dash of milk. Then you find a table or a space at the bar and look for your waitress.

Denise will be serving us today. She's all smiles as she takes the slips of paper with our orders on them and saunters off to the bar.

You get the feeling most of the men in here are regulars. They chat to the waitresses like they're old friends and the girls play their part, casually flirting. It's all about the tips for them - you'll pay 1000 Chilean pesos ($2) for a coffee, which is standard, but the expectation is for the same again in tips.

It's uncomfortable for those of us not used to this sort of thing. We fidget, stare at the floor. Where do you look? But Denise is at ease, slinging our coffees across the table and smiling a practised smile.

The coffee isn't bad. The atmosphere is strange. The cigarette smoke is oppressive.

It's a bizarre experience and something of a relief to bid Denise goodbye (with a kiss on the cheek, naturally), and to breathe once again the clean air on the busy Santiago street outside.

What to make of it all? Cafe con piernas isn't a lovely little place by the water and you won't get the city's best espresso. But at least it's not boring.

What's your experience of Santiago? Comment below.

- (Live Matches)

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