Posted Oct. 22, 2012
By LAURA YEPES
The little window on the front of Versailles Restaurant was bustling with customers, the servers rushing to put out shot after shot of Cuban espresso. The regulars were coming by for their daily cups of coffee, and some even for a second cup.
They chatted with the servers behind the window like they were friends, and that is because, well, they are friends.
“I have been coming here for 25 years,” said Tony Patao, a Miami resident. “For my morning coffee and then in the afternoon after work.”
He called it the best coffee in Miami.
It is hard not to build a relationship with customers like that.
“It’s more than the best, it is emblematic,” server Sergio Gonzalez said about the coffee.
There are many more like Patao. Behind him were a group of men who have been going for many years every day to have discussions over coffee. Servers have many customers they can identify, even giving them nicknames like “The Teenagers.”
It is just an example of what this restaurant means to this city.
If you go to Miami without going to Versailles Restaurant, then you did not really go to Miami. That is how the saying goes around what has been called “the most famous Cuban restaurant in the world.”
When you walk in to the restaurant from the main entrance, the first thing you might see is yourself. Beautifully etched mirrors line the walls of the dining area, reflecting the light coming in from the windows opposite from them, creating the illusion of an even larger room.
To the left, through a doorway there is an even larger room known as the “Hall of Mirrors” where all four walls are made up of mirrors and sparkling chandeliers hang from the ceilings. Both rooms are filled with chattering guests, some sitting comfortably, very familiar with the setting; others excitedly look over the menu, unsure of what to order.
To the right side of the main room there is a long hallway that passes by the coffee shop, and ends in the bakery.
The delicious smell of freshly made pastries wafts over the line of customers looking over the displays of pastelitos, tarts, cakes and countless other mouth-watering delicacies while those who have already ordered sit and enjoy their dessert, joking with the employees behind the counter.
“Versailles is not really ours,” said Nicole Valls, daughter of the owner and granddaughter of the founder, Felipe Valls Sr. “It’s the people of Miami’s.”
The restaurant was established in 1972 by Valls Sr., having left Cuba after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. He used to run a sandwich and coffee shop in Cuba, his granddaughter said so after a string of jobs in Miami he decided to open one in Miami.
Soon after, the restaurant grew in popularity after more and more people he knew from Cuba started coming to Miami and started telling their friends about it as well.
The location also helped she said, because the restaurant is located amid theaters, so customers would head over for some Cuban favorites after a night of fun.
Its fame and popularity has spread far beyond Miami, though. As the saying suggests, the restaurant has become a must-see for visitors wishing to have the full Miami experience.
When they go to Versailles they can expect “old, Cuban comfort food,” Valls said, favorites like ropa vieja, which is shredded beef in a tomato sauce, or vaca frita, which is the same concept but flattened, fried and served with onions.
“Guests from other places come here saying that their friend told them they had to come to Versailles when they came to Miami,” said Norberto Alfonso, who was worked as a waiter there for 14 years. “They come with a list of what to order.”
The fact that its fame is a product of word of mouth is testament to its reputation. Valls said that only recently did they put up a website and join social media sites, like Twitter.
Apart from the traditional dishes, Versailles offers Cuban dishes that are not as recognized as the typical ones. When asked for recommendations, Alfonso likes to suggest pork’s feet, tail or tongue.
“We make food that you cannot find in other places, and we do it very good,” Alfonso said.
Another server, Herenia Galeano likes to recommend seafood dishes, like the Versailles paella, and the coffee with pastelitos.
“We explain to the customers the importance of Versailles in the Cuban community,” she said. “It’s like something historic.”
The restaurant is famous for more than just its food. It became an icon for exiled Cubans, who gather there to talk their country’s politics over a cup of Cuban coffee.
“It is kind of the town hall of exiled Cubans,” Valls said.
Countless political figures have stopped by Versailles on their campaign trails, like Michele Bachmann and more recently, Representative Paul Ryan. A few presidents have also passed by including George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. When they go, they make sure to drink their shot of Cuban espresso coffee, all in hopes of getting more support among the Hispanic community.
News networks also know that is the place to go whenever big news breaks that affects the Cuban community. The few times that rumors of Castro’s death have spread, the media have flooded the small parking space in front of the restaurant awaiting the public’s response. Since those times were false alarms, the networks have already reserved the spaces in front of the restaurant to be there when the day comes, Valls said.
That importance it holds and its 40-year history has garnered it folkloric status, Gonzalez said, a place to get to know the culture.
“It is the pulse of the exile,” Gonzalez said.
IF YOU GO
- Versailles Restaurant, 3555 SW 8th St., Miami, Fla. 33135
- Telephone: 305-444-0240
- To get there:
- Heading north on South Dixie Highway, make a left on SW 32nd Avenue then turn right on SW 8th St. Restaurant will be on the right.
- Heading south on South Dixie Highway, make a right on SW 27th Avenue, then left on SW 8th Street. Restaurant will be on the left.
- Using the 836 Dolphin Expressway from either direction get off on the NW 27th Avenue exit and head south. Make a right on SW 8th Street and the restaurant will be on the left.
- Hours of operation: Mondays-Thursdays: 8 a.m. – 2 a.m., Fridays: 8 a.m. – 3:30 a.m., Saturdays: 8 a.m. – 4:30 a.m., Sundays: 9 a.m. – 2 a.m.