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Famous Cuban restaurant celebrates 50 years in Miami

A host stands near a sign written in Spanish looking for dishwashers and cooks in front of the Versailles Cuban restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami.
A host stands near a sign written in Spanish looking for dishwashers and cooks in front of the Versailles Cuban restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

MIAMI – Versailles is a place to see and be seen.

At its ventanita, Miamians have been trying for 50 years to fix the world as they enjoy one of their favorite activities: sipping Cuban coffee. As they enter, the first thing that visitors do is look around the tables for friends. And the scan never fails. There’s always someone to chat with.

Even the mirrors in the main hall — the work of Juan Pérez-Cruz, a decorator with a passion for French styles and uncle of singer Pitbull — conspire to make the clients multiply.

Throughout the 50 years of existence that it marks this year, Versailles and the idea of crowds have been synonymous in a city where people spend a lot of time in their cars and head to the Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho when they want to celebrate — or protest — something.

If the Heat or the Marlins win, the pots and pans ring out at Versailles to put music to the celebration. The chants and posters of “Freedom!” come out when Cuba is experiencing one of its many crises, like on July 11, when Miami Cubans camped out for more than a week at Versailles to show their support of Cubans on the island who hit the streets for the biggest protests in the last 60 years.

That’s why it’s hard to imagine that Versailles was empty and silent at some point.

But that’s what happened in March 2020, when Miami-Dade County ordered all restaurants to close because of the pandemic. The Valls family, owners of Versailles, made a deal with Sedano’s to hire 400 employees of the restaurant and its La Carreta branch to work in the supermarkets, which were doing good business at the time because almost everything else was closed.

“It was so sad to see Versailles closed. We all cried, even the employees. We all hugged,” Nicole Valls, vice president of operations of the Valls Group, recalled. With sisters Luly and Desirée, they are the third generation to operate the restaurant, founded by grandfather Felipe Valls in 1971.

“We were only doing take out, and it was so strange when I went in,” Nicole said. The restaurant has not fully recovered because of a shortage of employees, and it has been forced to trim back its closing hours to midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

It’s difficult to imagine Versailles without those late night hours that made it a favorite of several generations of Miamians who left the theaters or the clubs in search of croquetas or yucca fritters with cilantro mojo. In the middle of an early morning bite, you could almost hear the loud laughter of Olga Guillot.

The singer, a native of Santiago de Cuba like Felipe Valls Sr., was a fixture at those early mornings at the Versailles, like Israel López “Cachao,” who sometimes stopped by after playing at clubs around the city, including the Copacabana, across the street from Versailles and also a Valls property.

THE CUBAN SANDWICH AND THE VENTANITA

Versailles is a witness to a time when Miami was much smaller, much less Cuban and barely Latino.

“Miami was a quiet town. There was almost no traffic. Going to Dadeland was almost like going to Disney World,” Felipe Valls Jr. recalled about the city where his father decided to open a restaurant on Calle Ocho and 35th Avenue, beyond the center of the city’s life between downtown and 12th Avenue.

Many warned Felipe Valls Sr. that it was crazy to go so far west, but by then the businessman was moving fast. After coming to Miami in 1960, he sold used restaurant equipment, imported espresso coffee machines and invented the ventanita so cafeterias could continue to sell coffee and pastries to street clients before the arrival of air conditioning. He also sold his restaurant Badia’s in Little Havana, where El Pub now sits.

Today the Valls Group has 2,000 employees and owns the nine La Carretas in South Florida, MesaMar in Coral Gables, Casa Cuba in South Miami and Casa Juancho, a longtime Spanish restaurant in Little Havana.

They also own packing and distributing plants as well as a coffee roaster for their own brand, La Carreta, which they offer in their restaurants and sell to other cafeterias around Miami. Versailles’ croquetas are also sold at Whole Foods.

“There is only one Versailles, and it would lose its magic if there was more than one,” Nicole Valls said about the decision not to open other Versailles restaurants in Miami — although they do have a few outposts at Miami International Airport.

At the request of many clients who want the classic Versailles, there are no plans to modernize the decor — “a little crazy,” as Luly Valls puts it, because it mixes the mirrors, “fancy” chandeliers and the typical uniforms of waiters and waitresses.

But that’s as far as they want to remain frozen in time, because Versailles, which sells more than 7,000 Cuban sandwiches every month at its Calle Ocho location, now ships them out through the popular web page www.goldbelly.com. The menu now includes dishes like cauliflower rice topped with cilantro, garlic and lemon for dieters, said Nicole and Luly, who have added new technologies and social media to Valls Group operations.

“Versailles has people of all kinds and all ages. People my age, who want to go to trendy places, as well as someone older, everyone likes it,” said Luly. Like Nicole, she eats every weekday at the restaurant but doesn’t bring in a date because there’s always some family member around.

The sisters chatted with el Nuevo Herald while sitting on a table near the back entrance, where one day they watched Beyoncé and Jay-Z come in, just two of the famous people who have visited the place. “Jay-Z had rabo encendido and Beyoncé something with chicken, mojitos and pitchers of sangria,” Luly said. JLo came in once, but just for takeout.

VERSAILLES, POLITICAL EPICENTER OF MIAMI

More than a place for the famous, Versailles has been a magnet for politicians who have long turned up there to seek the Cuban vote and offer their support to Cubans. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Sen. John McCain and more recently House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have sipped coffee or attended dinners or meetings at the restaurant.

“It’s been something we cannot control,” said Valls Jr., who now runs the family empire and sometimes gets to his office at Versailles and finds 1,000 people at a demonstration in front of the restaurant.

Contrary to what many believe, “the protests are not good for business,” said Valls Jr. “It kills sales by half. They take up all the parking, and the garbage they leave behind all over is tremendous. But I would do it with double the sales or half the sales, because it’s Cuba.”

“The media focus on Versailles during those events is worth more than the losses,” he acknowledged.

The many “deaths” of Fidel Castro before the real one in November 2016 brought seas of celebrating Cubans as well as more than 60 TV crews and other media to the Versailles parking lots, which have been growing over the years.

But nothing compared to the energy and hopes that exploded during the demonstrations in support of the Cubans who staged street protests on the island on July 11, Valls Sr. said.

“This protest has been different from the others. The energy, the tears, the way the people hit the streets. You saw a passion. They talked about their families in Cuba. It’s very different when they come to celebrate the Heat,” Valls Jr. said. He said he sent a friend in Spain a photo taken with a drone of so many people gathered outside Versailles that it only showed part of the sign that announces “the most famous Cuban restaurant in the world.”

That energy was contagious for the Valls, who admit they would like to open a Versailles in Cuba some day.

“In Vedado or the Malecon, those parts of Havana that I like a lot. And in Santiago, of course,” said Valls Sr., but only after celebrating in Miami “the collapse of what’s left of the regime.”

But in the meantime, Valls Jr. is planning some changes for the Versailles on Calle Ocho. Since they now have plenty of parking and people have enjoyed the tent built alongside the restaurant because of COVID-19, he is planning to replace it with a steel and glass structure, like the old European train stations. It will be open in winter for al fresco dining, and close in summer, when Miamians don’t want to set foot outside because of the heat. He’s also thinking of a small bar, and a bigger waiting area.

“Versailles is famous around the world, but it is a very simple family restaurant. We want to keep that and continue offering good food at a good price,” said Valls Jr., adding that the model works well, so he only wants to improve it, not change it.

“It’s a place where you can come in sandals and shorts or a suit, and you feel good,” he said.

A PLACE TO FIND YOUR ROOTS

Versailles is also an attraction for tourists who come to Miami, and a place where many visitors from Latin America can find the flavors from their homelands that cannot be found in other U.S. cities.

Mexican publicist Alberto Gómez was living in Los Angeles when he made it one of his first stops during a visit in 2002, attracted by the fame of the restaurant and the celebrities who frequent it. And he had a licuado de lechosa, or papaya shake.

“It was one of my favorites as a child, and it’s difficult to find it in California. I loved the one in Versailles, and I still like to order it today,” said Gómez, who moved to Miami 16 years ago and still takes his parents there when they visit him.

Raisa Rojo, a Cuban-born doctor in the Dominican Republic who comes to Miami frequently, said she always returns to Versailles to check her roots. “All of our sad and happy things are discussed there in some way,” she said. “The menu is very extensive and very Cuban and brings back many memories: the plantain chips, the chicken soup, the palomilla steak.”

For Boris Vázquez, a Cuban businessman who lives in Bogotá, the taste and variety of the dishes keep bringing him back to the restaurant. “Anything you want, it’s almost certain you’ll find it,” he said, adding that his love of Versailles passes through “the nostalgia thing.” He added: “It brings back memories of the land where I was born. And when I go there (Cuba) I don’t find those dishes available.”

And Idarmis Prieto, who moved from Miami to Orlando, remembers the variety available at the Versailles bakery, especially the croquetas. A friend in Orlando likes them so much that she asks visitors to Miami to bring back some for her.

The Valls family knows that its clientele is changing, like the great majority of the people who gathered there after the July 11 protests on the island.

“The challenge is to maintain the essence of the history of Cubans from the time of my grandfather, stay as a trend but without changing,” said Nicole Valls.

Like the mirrors in Versailles, each Cuban has a story to tell about their lives in Miami that includes the restaurant.

Cuban-American author Gustavo Pérez Firmat remembered Versailles in his book, “Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way.” “Who goes there wants to be the stuff of visions. Who goes there wants to make a spectacle of himself (or herself). All the ajiaco you can eat and all of the jewelry you can wear multiplied by the number of reflecting planes – and to top it off, a waitress who calls you mi vida,” he wrote. He added that his idea of immortality is for his image to remain in the mirrors forever.

For the 50th anniversary celebration on Nov. 10, Versailles has joined up with the HistoryMiami Museum to gather up materials for an archive of photos and objects from the cultural legacy and experience of Cuban exiles, which will later turn into a broader art project.

You can share photos, videos, stories or experiences about Versailles at http://www.historymiami.org.