Want legs with your coffee?

SANTIAGO — There was no scent of coffee — or even a coffee cup in sight. Although, strictly speaking, the darkness made it hard to see much of anything besides the fluorescent bands of white that didn’t quite cover the waitresses’ bodies. Music blasted from speakers.

Welcome to Cafe Montana, one of the dozens of “cafe con pierna” (coffee with legs) establishments that have popped up all over the Chilean capital in the past decade. There's a consistency to the businesses, which are typically open during normal office hours: Male clients are greeted with a kiss on the cheek by young semi-nude waitresses behind the counter, clad in tiny strands of cloth pretending to be bikinis. Sometimes the only thing covering a breast is a dab of whipped cream. And, of course, there's coffee to be had.

At Cafe Montana, which is located in a city area full of auto repair shops and coffee-thirsty workers and mechanics, customers stand at a seatless counter raised on platforms — a set-up that gives clients a better peek when waitresses bend over, and which gives them better access to their waists, breasts and bottoms.

Recently, in the middle of the day, all but one of the young, exuberant waitresses were sitting on top of the coffee counter, chatting while they waited for clients. Meanwhile, the manager was tying up the back of the glowing white string bikini on one of his employees. The only busy waitress was leaning over the counter, muffling a middle-aged client with her almost bare breasts. He had drifted in on his lunch break.

The waitresses act as part psychologist, part lover. While listening to their clients' problems, they flirt and let themselves be caressed. The coffee is an afterthought.

The exchanges don't always end with a morning caress over a good cup of coffee. Often, there are subtle sexual negotiations taking place that may last several visits to the cafe. Clients strike up conversations with their servers, while they flirt and touch. They may leave a high tip to signal their intentions and return another day, this time with gifts or an invitation to go out.

This is not love, mind you. “These are not direct or immediate sex negotiations," says Enrique Lagos, until recently a regular client of these cafes. "It all depends on the woman — she selects the client and decides how far she wants to go with him. Sex is paid with gifts, money, dinners, jewelry, or whatever. I have seen sex paid with stoves and heaters."

It wasn’t always like this, and not all establishments are alike.

The first traditional “coffee with legs” — Cafe Haiti — opened decades ago in the business district downtown. It had no tables, chairs, or ladies’ bathroom — there were just coffee counters on raised platforms, and waitresses in tight shirts and miniskirts.

Its clients were — and still are — for the most part white-collar employees, executives and men running errands. Cafe Haiti's doors are wide open, and no music plays. Today, it's just as it was decades ago, except that it, and its clients, have gotten older.

The modern version of "coffee with legs" came with the inception of democracy in Chile in 1990, when new cafes emerged with darkened windows and waitresses in bikinis. The first of this crop of establishments was the Red Baron. That cafe's scantily clad servers, dimmed lighting and loud sexy music were a hit. Soon, the cafe began experimenting with the "happy minute": At any time of day, the doors would be locked from the inside and young waitresses would perform a striptease. Waitresses continued to serve coffee, but they did so topless.

Word got around fast. Men started piling up at the entrance, trying to get in or at least peek through the windows. The media picked up on the story, and the Red Baron’s owners started promoting their “coffee with legs” as a tourist attraction.

Many of these cafes don’t sell sex — just coffee and excitement. But the Red Baron awakened a huge market for erotic cafes and subtle commercial sex. Many other such establishments opened, offering “happy minutes” and other erotic displays.

But this decade, what really increased the number of these erotic coffee shops was the shuttering of cabarets and nightclubs downtown. The closures were the handiwork of Joaquin Lavin, the former mayor of Santiago and an open member of Opus Dei — he shut down clubs and cabarets that were offering sexual services by their dancers right in the establishments.

In Chile’s market economy, supply rapidly adapted to meet demand. Erotic cafes popped up in clusters all over the capital. The competition was on.

“It’s a sort of escape valve, a cultural outlet,” Lagos explains. “Some men feel old, ugly, uninteresting or shy, and these cafes give them a chance to be with young attractive women. In this gray and conservative society, these cafes are an explicit summoning to an encounter between the sexes, where both sides know exactly what to expect from the other.”

More Dispatches about curious cafes:

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