Largest Restaurant in the World?
Before building Paris’ famous tower, Gustave Eiffel earned a name as a fine engineer in Chile by designing Santiago’s classic central market, the Mercado Central, at the end of the 19th. Century. .
For years this market was the destination for shoppers in search of supplies for their elegant tables. At the Mercado Central there were always off-season and tropical fruit and fine selections of seafood, meats and vegetables.
Unlike the boisterous Vega Central, its less expensive sister market across the Mapocho River, the Mercado Central was a quieter place where people behaved with the decorum expected in a temple dedicated to food.
In its well over a hundred years of existence, the classic structure has resisted change. A civil war, political upheavals, the commercial isolation created by two world wars, failed to change the structure ambiance of Eiffel’s masterpiece. In the late 1940’s, two blocks away, a little noticed change took effect that would have great effect on the future of the Mercado. On Bandera Street strip joints took root.
The elegant ladies who did their shopping did not frequent the strip joints. More than likely were not even aware of the skin shows taking place just a shout away. However, this development combined with the September 11 1973 coup d’etat would unleash a strong current that would change the nature of the Mercado Central.
How does political violence, strip joints and an architectural masterpiece fit into the same story? The answer is food and the entrepreneurial spirit of Chilean small-business people.
After deposing Marxist President Salvador Allende, General Pinochet and his ‘milicos’ had several serious problems: Possible civil war was one of them. To prevent this, they began rounding up Communists, Socialists, fellow travelers, friends of fellow travelers, even a few military who were in disagreement.
To facilitate the task of rounding up people, the military junta decreed a curfew. This forced the patrons of the strip joints to either leave early or remain enjoying themselves until curfew was lifted in the morning.
It didn’t take long for the Mercado Central merchants to take advantage of this development.
As hung-over and starving skin show habitués left the nightclubs, they’d head for the market where stall owners displayed plates of oysters, clams and other seafood concoctions ready to eat.
From raw seafood, on the outside fringes, small kitchens appeared and spread. The food was good and cheap!
With the advent of supermarkets, the fashionable ladies did their shopping closer to home.. The restaurant business grew.
Today, when you visit the Mercado Central you will see a dining room the size of a city block surrounded by a ring of fish and seafood stalls. This could now be the largest restaurant in the world.