While Santiago, with its glass towers and progressive mass-transit network, may seem modern and minimalist in some neighbourhoods, if you peel back a few layers of history, the sometimes more dive-y origins of the city begin to reveal themselves. Santiago’s old-school atmosphere can best be found in a picada, the traditional drinking dens that dot the city with cheap drinks to pair with heavy meat and potato dishes. Be on the lookout for the Terremoto, a combination of a young wine called pipeño, with a scoop of ice cream and a few other ingredients. Parts of the city retain the neo-classical architecture of the past century, inspired by nineteenth-century Europe.
There’s intricate ironwork throughout the 1872 Mercado Central, while neighborhoods like Lastarria or Bellas Artes feature townhouses with stone façades and iron light posts that, despite being restored in recent years, seem much like they did decades before.
As Santiago becomes more refined and contemporary, the old city is becoming more obscure, like the cafes con piernas, coffee shops with provocatively dressed female wait staff, which are getting pushed further and further out of public view. Yet, with the right set of eyes on the tree- lined cobblestone streets of Bellavista, you can still enter the world of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and senator who won the Noble Prize for literature in 1971, and who served wine to his guests at his home in kitschy coloured glasses that he picked up around Chile and on his travels abroad.
If you find yourself drinking an oversized cocktail called the Earthquake, you know there are bound to be ramifications. The Terremoto was invented at the picada El Hoyo, which translates as “the hole”, when some visiting German reporters who were covering the damage of a recent earthquake asked for something refreshing. The waiter, Guillermo Valenzuela, added a scoop of ice cream to a glass of pipeño, a type of sweet, young, unfiltered table wine, to which the Germans replied, “Now this truly is an earthquake.” The name stuck and El Hoyo, founded in 1912 south of Estación Central, suddenly had a famous drink that continues to bring in patrons from around the city who stay to indulge in hearty traditional Chilean dishes like pernil con papas (pork leg with boiled potatoes) or mechada (meatloaf). The typical Terremoto recipe mixes pineapple ice cream, pipeño and a splash of a bitter such as fernet in a 500ml glass. Some variations might swap in pisco or licor de granadina (pomegranate liquor) instead of fernet. In most cases, after the first glass your legs are shaky. The second glass, called a Temblor or Aftershock, is usually smaller, as you might imagine.
Translated as a “café with legs”, Café con Piernas is the type of place that has been gradually disappearing in Santiago. The name of these mostly downtown establishments was originated by the clothing the waitresses wore when serving customers.
Contrasting Santiago’s rather conservative image, these cafés, have been around since the 1960s. Café Haiti, the most elegant of the type, launched as an Italian- style coffee bar to serve businessmen stepping out of office buildings. Haiti, on a busy street, remains the most polished of these cafés, marked by tinted windows and neon lights, and sells its own line of delicious coffee. Inside the atmosphere is more a disco with thumping with most clientele coming for no more than 10 or 20 minutes to sip one of their famed espressos before going back to work.
Between 1850-1875, the government recruited thousands of Germans to help settle the south of Chile – an act that transformed the national cuisine over the next century. One of the dishes that best exemplify this influence is the crudo. Translating simply as “raw”, the dish is made with finely chopped uncooked minced beef, lemon juice and chopped onion that’s set on a piece of pre- sliced white bread with a sauce of yogurt and mayonnaise. A Chilean crudo is similar to a tartare, and it most likely originated from the German dish mett, which uses pork instead of beef (cattle farming is common in southern Chile so it was adapted). The snack is most famously served at the bar of Café Haussmann, a German-style pub that was originally founded in Valdivia more than 50 years ago, but also has a Santiago location in Las Condes. The bar serves their crudos with slices of lemon, to be drizzled over the minced meat, alongside their house beers and classic Chilean sandwiches. You’ll also find straightforward crudos being served in traditional bars and restaurants around Santiago, as well as in modern restaurants that have made variations with ingredients like maqui berries and deer meat.
Nobel Prize-winning poet and celebrated food lover Pablo Neruda believed that wine tasted better out of coloured glasses, which he used to serve his friends, and which you can see in droves at his house-museum, La Chascona, named after his then mistress (and later wife) Matilde Urrutia, who was known to have wild, curly red hair. Neruda lived a life of dinner parties and celebrity guests, who came to eat and drink in the colourful rooms of his whimsical house, which was lined with objet d’art and knick-knacks ranging from portraits from Mexican muralist Diego Rivera to hand-carved wooden figureheads and shells collected on the coast. The architecture of the house, at the foot of Cerro San Cristobal in the bohemian Bellavista neighborhood, was inspired by the sea, with rooms resembling the cabin of a boat, some porthole windows, a bar built with wood from a French ship and a living room that resembles a lighthouse. One of the poet’s three house-museums in Chile (the others are in Valparaíso and Isla Negra on the coast), La Chascona now has a small café and gift shop that serve as waiting areas before the guided tours of the property, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Santiago.