Iconic Miami Restaurant Celebrates 50 Years

MIAMI – This is a place to grab a strong Cuban “cafécito” – and maybe a glimpse of a celebrity or two.

Among his clients were Beyoncé and Jay-Z, as well as many American presidents: George W. Bush made a surprise visit for breakfast, Bill Clinton had a festive meal there, and Donald Trump made an unexpected visit to the bakery in 2020.

“Anyone who campaigns always passes by Versailles and has this image in the ventanita (small window) drinking his Cuban coffee,” said Nicole Valls, 39, whose grandfather opened Versailles, a restaurant that has traced the growth and history of Miami’s vibrant Cuban-American community. .

This month, Versailles celebrates its 50th anniversary. It was opened in 1971 by Felipe Valls Sr., who fled Cuba in 1960 after Castro’s communist revolution.

Over the decades, the facade of Versailles has become the gathering place for huge crowds for demonstrations and gatherings – and a place to take the pulse of the Cuban-American community. The most recent rally supported protesters in Cuba during historic protests in July.

Protesters support the protests in Cuba on November 15 outside the Cuban restaurant Versailles in Miami.Wilfredo Lee / AP folder

Despite its rich history, Versailles is still the culinary home of many ordinary American Cubans who forged a life in Florida.

“I like going there because people always talk about Cuba and I feel at home there, like a fish in water,” said Rosita Gonzalez, 68, from Miami, who came from Cuba in 1999. .

Whenever someone Gonzalez knows comes from Cuba, she takes him to a restaurant. “People in Cuba have heard of Versailles, so it’s a point of reference,” she said. “It shows them the soul of Miami.”

Miguel Suarez with a replica of the 1971 menu before having dinner with his wife, Yolanda, at Versailles in Miami on November 10.Lynne Sladky / AP file

The interior of Versailles was designed by an uncle of Pitbull – yes, the famous rapper – who is Cuban-American. The name of the restaurant comes from the dining rooms adorned with mirrors and chandeliers, like the Hall of Mirrors of the palace in France.

“We used to run around this place,” said Nicole Valls, who remembers the restaurant as a playground for her and her sisters. “There are so many mirrors. It’s like a fun house. We would run to the cafeteria and buy sweets for the ladies.

In an interview on a rainy but busy Friday afternoon, Valls recalled the restaurant’s early years.

“It was smaller than today. It consisted of a ventanita, a sandwich counter and a few tables, ”she said. Valls helps run the business with his father, Felipe Valls Jr., and other relatives.

Versailles has been remodeled several times and now accommodates nearly 400 people.Eva Marie Uzcategui / AFP – Getty Images file

His grandfather Felipe Sr., 88, still goes there from time to time. A successful immigrant family, the Valls own several Cuban restaurants, including La Carreta, which is down the street. The grandfather got his start doing odd jobs in Miami, including washing dishes in restaurants. Then he started importing espresso machines, helping supermarkets and other businesses install ventanitas or pickup windows – a new concept in Miami as Cubans began to settle in the area.

Versailles was the first restaurant to have a ventanita, his granddaughter said. The concept is now a staple in the city: Every day there’s a crowd outside the service window sipping hot Cuban coffee and munching on pastries with guava, a Cuban and Caribbean staple.

Over the past 50 years, Versailles has been remodeled and enlarged several times; it currently sits around 400 people.

Felipe Valls Jr., owner of Versailles, with his daughter Nicole. The restaurant was the first to popularize a ventanita, or service window, now a staple in Miami.Lynne Sladky / AP file

Mapping history

The gatherings outside the restaurant have long reflected the political and cultural history of the city’s Cuban Americans, whose growing numbers and economic clout paved the way for Miami to become a destination for many Latin Americans – as well as a growing international hub.

In 1999, thousands of Cuban Americans gathered outside Versailles to protest the US government’s decision in the international custody battle for Elián Gonzalez, a 5-year-old boy who was rescued from the ocean after his mother drowned while fleeing Cuba. The young boy was sent back to Cuba at the request of his father.

Alexandra Villoch, president and publisher of the Miami Herald Media Co., distributes a special edition of the Miami Herald outside Versailles on November 26, 2016.Wilfredo Lee / AP folder

But the event that stands out most in Valls’ memory is the death of Fidel Castro in 2016. Years before, the media had started to contact the restaurant to find a place outside, knowing that it would be a place of crucial rally at Castro’s death. Valls kept a filing cabinet in his car with a floor plan of Versailles and the surrounding parking lots that included assigned media locations, information on who would have access to the roof and where the security guards would be.

“I remember getting this call on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I drove this far and ended up staying all night, ”Valls said. “I remember on Saturday going up to the roof of Versailles and looking down and you couldn’t see anything but people.”

“It was a surreal moment for me. It was a moment that so many people were waiting for and that’s where they came to celebrate,” she said. “It’s like my second home, so it was an honor.”

For politicians, stopping at Versailles in the countryside is a must. The tradition began with Bob Graham, a Democrat, in 1977. As a candidate for governor, he held different positions for one day. One was a waiter serving food in Versailles. Since then, the campaign stops at the restaurant has not stopped. (Graham won.)

Former Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bushes, Clinton and Trump have all made stops in Versailles, as have presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and John McCain. Visits were not always planned.

President George W. Bush greets staff and coffee workers after breakfast with business leaders at Versailles in Miami on July 31, 2006.John Van Beekum / Miami Herald via Getty Images File

“I was at the office across the street. By the time they called me and I ran over they were already gone, “Valls said of Trump’s 2020 visit.” He ordered croquetas and pastelitos and tipped $ 100 $ to girls. “

On its website, Versailles is called “the most famous Cuban restaurant in the world”.

“I meet people I know and we talk about Cuba and we look back on the olden days,” said longtime patron Osorio Pérez González, 74, a Miami resident who came to the United States in 1980.

Valls said: “There is nothing like Versailles, especially for Cubans. “

“It’s sort of their zero point, the epicenter of the Cuban-American community,” she said. “Whenever something happens, this is where everyone comes together.”

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