WELCOME TO VERSAILLES RESTAURANT, MIAMI'S CUBAN CULTURE INTERSECTION

Versailles: 40 years serving food with a side of politics

Credit: MARICE COHN BAND

For 40 years, its palatial floor-to-ceiling mirrors, chatty dining room, and effervescent cafecito counter have been the backdrop to Cuban exile history.
Iconic Versailles.

Nothing quite conjures the flavors and aroma of cubanía, the virtues and the vices of all things Cuban, like the Little Havana restaurant at 3555 SW Eighth St., celebrating this year, with expansion plans and special events, four decades of serving home-style Cuban cuisine at modest prices — with a hefty side of political verve.

This is where exiles gather to plot against and to topple Fidel Castro (at least with words), or so the urban legend goes. This is where U.S. presidents, governors, legislators, mayors and commissioners come to court the Cuban vote and be photographed sipping that potent brew of café served by waitresses who call you by terms of endearment: “ cariño,” “ hijo mío,” “ mi amor.”

This is where the nation’s television cameras converge to gauge Cuban-exile reaction when crooner Juanes is singing in Havana or militant Luis Posada Carriles is acquitted in Texas. This is where the media will surely be staged one day for The Big Party the day the tyrant finally falls. Television networks have already reserved space around the restaurant to stage their live trucks here when The Day comes.

All great cities have such a restaurant, the kind that marks a time in its history and becomes a town square of sorts. They may not be the best, claim no Michelin stars, but they have, more than anything else, story and soul. Paris has Café de Flore on Boulevard Saint-Germain, famous for hosting intellectuals and a literary prize. Buenos Aires has La Biela in the tony La Recoleta neighborhood near the cemetery, catapulted to city lore by the race car drivers who patronized it in the 1940s.

And Miami has Versailles, a name evocative of French palace grandeur but simple at heart. Sit next to a telenovela star on signature vinyl green seats. This is a neighborhood restaurant founded to feed and assuage the nostalgia of a people by one of their own, Felipe Valls, Sr., a Santiago de Cuba entrepreneur who fled to Miami in 1960 to wait out the end of the newly installed Castro government.

“Versailles is more Miami’s restaurant than ours,” says son Felipe Valls, Jr., who now presides over a family-owned restaurant empire that employs 2,400 and includes multiple La Carreta outposts, the Spanish cuisine of Casa Juancho, a host of lower-profile restaurants, and franchises at Miami International Airport including Nathan’s, Au Bon Pain and Sushi Maki. “Few restaurants are taken to heart by the community like Versailles. It’s really amazing. They really feel like it’s theirs. It really is. Three generations of Cubans, tourists, Latin Americans, Anglos have come through here.”

So tied up in the city’s fortunes is the restaurant that even though the anniversary date was last month — Valls opened on June 11, 1971, what was then a small sandwich shop and cafe counter with a few tables — that the anniversary celebration, a tent party with civic leaders, celebrities and media in attendance, was postponed to this coming Tuesday afternoon to make room for the county’s mayoral run-off election between Julio Robaina and Carlos Gimenez, and the week after, the Fourth of July holiday.

As a thank-you to customers, the restaurant will offer “1970s prices” starting at 4 p.m. Tuesday and running through the rest of the evening, Valls Jr. says. Yep, there will be a $1.10 medianoche sandwiches and $3.25 palomilla steaks. Guaguancó dancers and drummers and a 10-piece orchestra will entertain party-goers under the tent and a trio will serenade diners inside the restaurant.

This is the kind of place where customers remember waitresses by their first names and nicknames: Sarita (with the bouffant hairdo á la Marie Antoinette). The tiny Zoraida, aka “ la tía.” Cuqui. La China.

“Sarita!” remembers Victoria Rivero Elliot of Kendall. “She wouldn’t stop teasing my first husband, who was French and also spoke Spanish, about how he would drink an entire colada but without any sugar.”

“¿ Cómo que amarga?” Sarita would complain. Who ever heard of a sugarless colada?

“Then Sarita would go into teasing comments about how sweetness was important,” Rivero Elliot says. “We always laughed so much with her.”

No customers are more faithful than the tableful of exiles nicknamed by the restaurant staff “Los Teenagers” having lunch on this Friday afternoon.

They number 11 and they’ve been coming to Versailles every weekday for lunch since the restaurant opened.

Like Valls Sr., the men are santiagueros and knew each other in Cuba. Like Valls, they lived during the early days of exile in an apartment building in Little Havana they dubbed Pastorita after a Cuban neighborhood.

“We were all 20 years old when we came from Cuba in the ’60s, and the waitresses began referring to us as ‘The Teenager’s Table,’ and it stuck,” says Luis González. “This is like our clubhouse. We are loud, opinionated, we argue about everything.”

The men start to rattle off their customary topics: sports (they have “a specialist” in every game), “a dictator” (clue: not Libya’s), “military tactics,” and the hottest button of all, local government.

Valls Jr., who on this busy Friday is in the middle of anniversary celebration meetings with staff, swings by the Teenagers’ table.
“They don’t pay for the food here,” Valls Jr. jokes. “They pay rent.”

It’s regulars like these men, now in their 60s and 70s, who brought the Valls family their early success. Actors fresh from their roles at nearby theaters started coming to Versailles after work, and so did the theater-going crowds. Weekend revelers still flock here. On Saturdays, the restaurant stays open until 4:30 a.m.

“When no one knew who he was, Julio Iglesias used to come and sit here and eat,” Valls Sr. remembers.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush is still a regular, and “although I’m a Republican,” Valls Sr. notes, President Clinton has been here three times. Famous chefs like the Food Network’s Bobby Flay make Versailles a mandatory pitstop on visits to Miami.

“It’s like the Cuban Mecca and I am a faithful pilgrim,” says Californian Marta Darby, who writes the blog “My Big, Fat, Cuban Family.”

The Valls say they never imagined that the 370-seat restaurant and bakery would become so popular.

“People tell me ‘Fidel made you a millionaire in Miami,’ ” says Valls Sr., 78, who operated a slew of enterprises in Cuba. “I tell them, ‘I would have been one in Cuba too.’ I always had ideas for businesses. I couldn’t sit still.”

He still can’t and neither can his son, who along with his sister Jeanette Valls Edwards and daughter Nicole is planning an ambitious expansion and renovation of Versailles that will include an even bigger dining room, private dining rooms, larger and fancier bathrooms, a souvenier shop, and a new kitchen to handle an expanded menu of seafood and lighter fare alongside the Cuban staples.

What about the mirrors? That’s a look created by the late Juan Pérez Cruz, also designer of the popular 1970s Les Violins Supper Club, which was on Biscayne Boulevard.
The mirrors will stay.

“If we take out the mirrors our customers will kill us,” says Valls Jr., 52, who started at the restaurant busing tables when he was 12.

The nostalgia for a lost Cuba, too, is likely to remain. Despite the festive talk by the new generation in charge, Valls Sr., like many of his patrons, still wistfully looks back to his homeland and clings to the hope of a return someday.

Asked what’s next for him, he doesn’t hesitate.

“My dream is to open a Versailles in Havana.”

Source: Miami Herald (Click for Source Article), written by Fabiola Santiago

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