Cuban food and cafecito may be the first things that come to mind about Versailles restaurant, located in the heart of Miami’s Cuban enclave, Little Havana. But to Miami’s Cuban community, the restaurant has been a symbol of culture, history, politics and identity. On July 12th, Versailles celebrated its 40th anniversary with a big party, complete with Cuban music, dancing, food, cocktails and complimentary cigars.
“Versailles is an icon,” said Manuel Cabaz, who fought in the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, carried out by CIA-trained exiles in 1961, and is a Versailles regular. “That is why today is a great day.”
Opened in 1971 by Felipe Valls in an area that would come to be known as Calle Ocho, Versailles has long been a political hub: Presidential candidates such as John McCain, Mitt Romney and Bill Clinton have campaigned in there for Cuban American votes. But Miami’s Cuban exile community had gathered there to hold heated discussions on politics—mostly Cuban politics—over sips of potent espresso at the 370-seat restaurant’s walk-up window before the place became the backdrop for many a campaign photo op, political rally and fundraising party.
At the anniversary party, Florida Gov. Rick Scott made a speech and many Cuban American politicians were present. Among them was Miami Commissioner Willy Gort, who expressed his admiration of the restaurant’s success and cultural importance over the years. He told Poder with a proud smile that Versailles proves that “in a free country with free enterprise you can go a long way if you work hard.”
To others, Versailles acts as a memory of old Cuba. “We are very proud of Versailles. We Hispanics love to keep our traditions going,” Lili Estefan, the Cuban American co-host of Univision’s El Gordo y la Flaca. “Generation after generation, this is one of the restaurants that represents our culture the most. I bring my kids and I explain to them you were born in Miami, but this is how Mami grew up [in Cuba]. This is what Mami ate, this is the music we listened to.”
Some party guests had a close personal connection with the Valls family. Cuban-American State Rep. Felix Diaz said that Felipe Valls helped Diaz’s grandparents settle in Miami after leaving Cuba.
“He was among the first people to help them out because they came from the same town in Cuba,” he said. “This place not only has a special place in my heart because of my family, but for everyone’s here in Miami-Dade County.”
Felipe Valls Jr., current owner of the restaurant, looked back on Versailles’ history and smiled confidently. “It started as a small restaurant and we expanded it three times throughout the years and we are still thinking about expanding,” he said.