The 40th anniversary of Versailles, the Little Havana center of all things Cuban and Cuban American, turns 40 this month. Wow! Forty years means the place was established when South Beach was merely a deserted town and before the Dolphins ever won a Super Bowl (yes, naysayers, it happened twice, actually). Versailles has been around longer than this paper, longer than a good 97 percent of the Miami New Times staff has been on Earth and, interestingly enough, longer than many of our city's Cuban residents have called America "home." Yet Fidel Castro had already been comandante in Cuba for a dozen years when the place was founded.
The most magical part of this Magic City restaurant is that many of the regulars have congregated here for four decades to eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and engage in cafecito breaks, healthy debates, or just moments to reminisce. We stopped in yesterday at about 3 p.m. to disturb regulars Emilio Alvarez, 67, of Coral Gables and 82-year-old Ramon Pielago of Brickell while they were enjoying a late lunch. We couldn't resist asking these Cuban characters why they can't seem to quit Versailles.
New Times: Do you know how long Versailles has been around?
Emilio Alvarez: I think it's 35, 36 years old.
Ramon Pielago: I think it's the 33rd [year].
It's actually 40 years old.
R.P.: No it's not. It's maybe 33.
How long have you gentlemen been coming here?
R.P.: Since they opened.
E.A.: Since the beginning. Not as often as now. I used to work more.
And how often are you at the restaurant now?
R.P.: I usually come every day now that I'm retired. I come for lunch. We have a group that comes every day. We eat lunch and then we chat for a while. Most of the time we talk about politics in Cuba. Usually I eat a very light lunch. Soup and dessert. And we usually drink coffee in the cafeteria after lunch.
E.A.: It's mostly like a club. A social gathering. It's not just to have lunch. We talk about friends, life, everyday issues, politics...
And I assume all the politicians come here, too.
R.P.: They should come here.
E.A.: They usually come -- at election time! After that, they don't come anymore.
(Editor's note: For evidence, we submit this photo of George W. Bush posted near the back of the restaurant.)
Why do you come here for conversation, though? Even at 3 p.m. on a Thursday it's so noisy!
R.P.: Atmosphere. Cubans -- we like noise.
How many people comprise your group?
R.P.: Between five to seven men.
R.P.: It's all men. But we don't have anything against women.
What's your favorite meal here?
R.P.: The bacalao.
E.A.: I eat a lot of chicken soup. And I eat fish.
R.P.: Arroz con leche. I get it before the coffee.
Do you think the place has changed much over the years?
E.A.: It's basically the same. It was smaller, but they kept making it bigger. It used to be more 'mom and pop' but now it's more corporate. Same décor. Lots of mirrors. It's like a time machine. It's very resilient.
What do you know about the Valls family? They own Versailles, right?
E.A.: [Felipe Valls] owns 14, 15 places.
(Editor's note: The Valls family owns and operates nearly a dozen Cuban restaurants in Miami, including multiple franchises of La Carreta, one of which is literally across the street from Versailles. They also own the Spanish restaurant Casa Juancho, also on Calle Ocho.)
So why do you think this particular restaurant is so hearty?
R.P.: Location is important. When they opened up, it was at the end of Miami.
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E.A.: Also he had the intelligence to advertise in different places. He brings a lot of tourist buses during the week. The place has some kind of special charisma. The people keep coming. Now there's a lot of word of mouth so the Cuban, Latin tourists come.
Closer to the anniversary event which, incidentally is open to the public from 7 to 9 p.m., we'll share the story of how the restaurant came to be. We'll also divulge what Versailles' action plan is for the official Castro Is Dead party: this event will most likely also be open to the public, though the date of the soiree is still to be determined.