Café with Legs / Tex Rubinowitz
The most likely reason for this might be the sudden hipness of instant coffee in the 1950s. It was imported from the USA as a highly expensive luxury product which became cheaper over the years until every Chilean could afford it, until the classic ground coffee became marginalised. Solubility was in fashion, and beans were cold coffee. But still there remained a few old-fashioned gourmets who felt there was something missing – which was good coffee. Which explains why, in the 1960s and 1970s, two rivalling chains of café bars opened up in Santiago de Chile, serving coffee- and nothing but coffee. And they still do to this day.
These chains are called CAFÉHAITI and CAFÉ CARIBE, both with around 20 branches established all over Santiago. Their architecture is nearly identical, and both are colloquially called „Café with legs“, as there is not a single chair or table to be found in their spacious interior. Instead, a seemingly endless chrome-coated bar meanders through the room, with the coffee drinkers – almost exclusively male – lined up along it. On the other side of the bar - and this is the real unique feature of these cafés – the waitresses, all of them uniformly dressed in very short, body-clutching dresses, are lined up as well on an elevated floor, so the guests are at direct eye-level with their breasts, a distinctly dominant position, as though in a roleplay.
The only men working here are the manager and the baristas handling the huge GAGGIA and CIMBALI machines further in the back, hardly visible. The waitresses, whose outfit changes weekly, do not merely hand out the cups, they also care for their guests – they know and welcome them by name, they know if they prefer their coffee with or without sugar or sweetener, ingredients stirred into the drink by the waitresses themselves. The setting is so obvious it resembles something out of a book by Sigmund Freud.
The matron residing behind the bar, the coffee seeming just a sort of alibi for an erotic lunch-break role play. Everyone has their personal waitress who knows how the coffee is preferred, and who shares the private and professional ups and downs of the guests.
The fact that this scene takes place in an extremely catholic country, its people still in traumatic aftershock of 17 years of brutal dictatorship, makes this psychological display even more transparent. Men turn into gasping schoolboys again, replenished by erotic promises during lunch-break or after work. Still, nobody laughs out loud when you claim that you’re merely here for the good quality of the coffee, and through the years, more and more women show up who plainly want nothing else but a quick caffeine infusion.
The unspoilt und unchanged generously splendid architecture betrays that these are untouchable institutions, loaded with significance, which does not lend itself to thoughtless refurbishment. Just as you wouldn’t adapt a church with each changing style or fashion. Still, there is one single detail that changes permanently: the cut of the waitresses’ dresses which shrinks millimeter by millimeter over time, like small-scale indicators of global climate change.