I love Colombia. I’ve been there a few times and every time I’ve had very different experience. The landscape is incredibly varied, the big cities each have their own distinct character, the people I’ve met have been very welcoming and warm, and I can understand their spanish better than almost anywhere.
But my favorite part of Colombia is the colorful “magical realism” thread that weaves through much of their culture. The Colombian author and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez popularlized the use of the term “magical realism” through his novels like “100 Years of Solitude”. (Side note: Austin’s Harry Ransom Center was gifted many of his notes and personal effects after his death and you can go see them for yourself for free).
The sliver of Colombian magical realism I really love are a certain style of bar/restaurant that is colorful, crazy, weird and like nothing I’ve experienced elsewhere. I think the style is called “Paisa”, meaning “from the country” or perhaps “fonda paisa”, meaning country inn or budget refreshment stand in the country. I have not been able to figure it out exactly.
The most famous of these is Andre’s Carne de Res (Andres’ Steakhouse). If you open any travel guide to Colombia and look for things to do in Bogota, one of the top places to go is always Andre’s. Which says a lot because Bogota is huge and has loads of things to do and this place is about 45 minutes outside of Bogota in a small town called Chia. It’s like saying the best thing to do in Austin is to go to this thing in San Antonio.
(Side note: if you are ever heading out there, you should first spend the day at the the very unique theme park – magically real in it’s own right – Parque Jaime Duque).
So what is this place?
It’s a gigantic rambling cavernous shack of restaurant/bar/discoteca. The walls and ceilings of the many rooms are covered an impossible amount kitsch and string lights. And there are multiple dancefloors. Well, technically speaking they have dancefloors but there’s really just one dancefloor – everywhere.
Anywhere people want to dance is the dancefloor. I’ve seen people stand up from their table and just dance around the table as the waiters try to make their way around them. Colombians love to dance and they’ll dance anywhere.
The menu is about 100 pages long and bound like a paperback book. You can buy one for a souvenir for about $10. As is the case with most restaurants sporting a large menu, the food is all mostly mediocre or worse.
But who cares? You don’t come for the food. You come for the party.
The evening starts slow and mellow but after a while we see employees dressed as random over-the-top characters come out and perform skits for the crowd and also just at individual tables. The music gets louder, the people get more loosened up. More people show up. Staff awards sashes bearing the distinction “honores de la casa” to first tim visitors. A band with trombones and trumpets comes out and brings things to a frenzy. It becomes a big party fast. It is sensory overload of colorful energetic fun. For the most part I don’t understand what is happening but it doesn’t matter. It is fantastic.
On my first visit our waiter was an American guy. I remarked on how huge and crowded the place was. He replied, “This is nothing. On Saturday we open that building across the street and about 3500 people show up.”
3500 people. What!
This is where I drop into “how can I make lots of awesome weird stuff happen where I live but in a financially feasible way mode”.
My friends and I dropped about $100 each that night. I never do that, and definitely never in Colombia where things tend to be much less expensive than the US. At best, we probably spent the average of people who were there. The math? Andre rings up about $350,000 in sales on a Saturday night.
I would love it if a place like this existed in Austin. But I wonder how much the culture of Colombia make it work. Clearly even then name “paisa” indicates it has probably grown and evolved out of their culture. I don’t think you could just bring it to the US and expect it to work. For one thing, I have never in my life seen people get up in dance by their table in an American restaurant. I’ll admit to drinking my share at Andres, but it didn’t seem to be the same drunk-party-scene that you are nearly required to induce to get people up and dancing in America.
Might it be possible? What would need to be different? How do we keep people from just coming to spectate but instead come to be involved? How do we convince people it will be worth the risk? These are the questions that seem to come up with many of my projects.
I was (once again) having too good a time to take any good photos. Here’s one to give you an idea.
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