Cafecito and presidential sightings: A landmark Miami restaurant turns 50

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“There’s nothing like Versailles, especially for Cubans. This is kind of their ground zero," says Nicole Valls about the place her grandfather built —now a world-known local and tourist hub.

MIAMI — It’s a place to get some strong Cuban “cafecito” — and perhaps a glimpse of a celebrity or two.

Its customers have included Beyoncé and Jay-Z, as well as quite a few U.S. presidents: George W. Bush made a surprise visit for breakfast, Bill Clinton had a celebratory meal there and Donald Trump made an unexpected visit to the bakery in 2020.

“Whoever’s campaigning always comes by Versailles and has that picture in the ventanita (little window) drinking their Cuban coffee,” said Nicole Valls, 39, whose grandfather opened Versailles, a restaurant that has charted the growth and history of Miami’s dynamic Cuban American community.

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

Through the decades, the front of Versailles has become the gathering place for huge crowds during protests and rallies — and a place to tap the Cuban American community’s pulse. The most recent rally supported protesters in Cuba during the historic demonstrations that took place in July.

Demonstrators support the protests in Cuba on Nov. 15 in front of the Cuban restaurant Versailles in Miami.Wilfredo Lee / AP file

Despite its storied history, Versailles is still a culinary home to many ordinary Cuban Americans who’ve forged a life in Florida.

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

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

Miguel Suarez with a replica menu from 1971 before dining with his wife, Yolanda, at Versailles in Miami on Nov. 10.Lynne Sladky / AP file

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

“We used to run around this place,” said Nicole Valls, who remembers the eatery 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 get candies from the ladies.”

During an interview on a recent rainy, yet busy, Friday afternoon, Valls recalled the early years of the restaurant.

“It was smaller than it is now. It consisted of a ventanita, a sandwich counter and some tables,” she said. Valls helps run the business with her father, Felipe Valls Jr., and other relatives.

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

Her grandfather Felipe Sr., 88, still goes from time to time. An immigrant family success, the Valls own several Cuban restaurants, among them La Carreta, which is down the street. The grandfather got his start doing odd jobs in Miami, including washing dishes in restaurants. Then he began importing espresso machines, helping supermarkets and other businesses set up ventanitas, or pick-up windows — a new concept in Miami as Cubans began settling in the area.

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

In the last 50 years, Versailles has remodeled and expanded several times; it currently sits close to 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 fixture in Miami.Lynne Sladky / AP file

Charting history

The rallies 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 turned out in front of Versailles to protest the U.S. government’s decision in the international custody battle over Elián Gonzalez, a 5-year-old boy who was rescued from the ocean after his mother drowned while fleeing Cuba. The young boy was returned to Cuba at his father’s behest.

Alexandra Villoch, president and publisher of the Miami Herald Media Co., hands out a special edition of The Miami Herald in front of Versailles on Nov. 26, 2016.Wilfredo Lee / AP file

But the event that stands out most in Valls’ memory was the death of Fidel Castro in 2016. Years before, news outlets had begun reaching out to the restaurant to secure a spot outside, knowing it would be a crucial gathering spot when Castro died. Valls kept a binder in her car with a floor plan of Versailles and the surrounding parking lots that included assigned spots for news outlets, information on who would have access to the rooftop and where the security guards would be.

“I remember getting that call on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I drove over here, and ended up staying through the night,” said Valls. “I remember on Saturday going up to the roof of Versailles and just 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 had been waiting for and this is where they came to celebrate,” she said. “This is like my second home, so it was an honor.”

For politicians, making a stop at Versailles while campaigning is a must. The tradition started with Bob Graham, a Democrat, in 1977. As a candidate for governor, he took on different jobs for a day. One was as a busboy and serving food at Versailles. Since then the campaign stops at the restaurant haven’t stopped. (Graham won.)

Former Presidents Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and Trump all made a stop at Versailles, as well as presidential hopefuls like Mitt Romney and John McCain. The visits weren’t always planned.

President George W. Bush greets cafe staff members and 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 had already left,” Valls said about Trump’s 2020 visit. “He ordered croquetas and pastelitos and tipped the girls $100.”

On its website, Versailles calls itself “the world’s most famous Cuban restaurant.”

“I run into people I know and we talk about Cuba and reminisce about the old times,” said one longtime patron, Osorio Pérez González, 74, a Miami resident who came to the U.S. in 1980.

Valls said, “There’s nothing like Versailles, especially for Cubans.”

“This is kind of their ground zero, the epicenter of the Cuban American community,” she said. “Whenever anything happens, this is where everyone gathers.”

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