Bar de Willy doesn’t try to be something it’s not. A long, wooden bar is the main indoor attraction. Mismatched posters, advertisements, stickers, and liquor bottles line the walls. Neon-yellow lights brighten up the two bartenders’ workplace. The ambiance of this Santiago classic is reminiscent of similar bars along Amsterdam’s Reguliersdwarsstraat or New York’s world-famous Stonewall Inn: dark and secretive, yet strangely inviting and familiar.
Owner and manager Paula sits behind the bar and takes my order. “Do you have anything on tap?” I ask. Paula laughs, and holds up the two types of bottled beer they have available that evening: it’s either Heineken or the local favorite, Escudo. A regular sitting next to me orders instead a bright blue drink, served in a stylish V-shaped glass. A serving of chips and peanuts accompanies every drink. Most people, however, aren’t here to stare at their drinks or Instagram their craft beer—they’re here to chat, dance, and meet people.
Paula, the bar's proud owner.
Paula is excited to know someone is interested in her bar. Luis, Paula’s brother and co-worker, steps in to mix drinks for eager regulars while Paula chats. “This bar has been in the hands of my family for over 30 years,” she recalls. I stare in disbelief, and Paula senses my next question: “Yes, we were open even during the dictatorship.” Chile was in the grips of a right-wing military dictatorship from 1973 to 1989. The bar’s main public was fiercely hated by the dictatorship. Many were imprisoned and tortured or killed—leaving no record behind.
“We were never really bothered by them,” referring to the military officials. She adds, “They would have had to take some of their very own away,” and smiles. Paula was a child at the time. Her father, Luis Sr., bought the bar in the late ‘80s from Willy John, a known Santiago cosmopolite—and the person after whom the bar is named. He made sure the bar remained a safe place.
A poster left behind by one of Willy's regulars.
She recalls that senators, ministers, important businessmen and many other members of Santiago’s elite were part of the bar’s regular clientele. In a city that hosts one of Latin America’s largest pride parades, and also has some of the region’s most conservative abortion laws, the contrast isn’t surprising. “It’s a different world these days,” Paula makes sure to add. “Although I still keep a strict policy of confidentiality. What happens here stays here.”
By day, Bar de Willy is a nearly unnoticeable bar in the middle of an open-air pedestrian shopping center. Its nearby neighbors are a KFC and a Starbucks. By night (on weekends), the bar becomes a fully-fledged club, complete with music, drag shows, and a dance floor.
Paula rushes to attend to a cocktail emergency. Happy hour has Luis and Paula working both the cocktail station and the indoor bar, never skipping a beat or forgetting to charge a customer. Everyone’s drinks are neatly penciled into a pad: Paula makes sure to keep the bar’s traditions alive.
Bar de Wily's nonchalant coasters.
Bar de Willy is also great at keeping its most important tradition alive: allowing Santiaguinos from all walks of life to come together for a simple beer after work, or a weekend night of upbeat love. On weekend nights, guests are allowed to walk into Bar de Willy’s secret area—a secret that I will leave for you to discover.
Bar de Willy
Nueva Providencia 2218, Santiago
022 – 335 23 74
Nearby public transportation: Metro Los Leones
Opening hours: Sunday through Thursday (6 PM – 4AM). Dance area opens at 9 PM. Friday, Saturday (10PM – 5 AM).
Price range: $10,000 CLP for two. Cash only.