Versailles Restaurant Is A Mainstay In South Florida's Cuban Community

Nov 29, 2016
Originally published on November 29, 2016 8:02 am
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When news broke early Saturday morning that Fidel Castro was dead, Cuban-Americans throughout Miami headed to a familiar spot. The Versailles Restaurant is the heart of the Cuban exile community. It's where Cuban-Americans talk politics and politicians seek their votes. NPR's Greg Allen paid a visit.

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GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Outside the Versailles Restaurant on the edge of Miami's Little Havana, it was still a busy scene yesterday, three days after Fidel Castro's death. Miguel Villalobos was outside the restaurant early Saturday morning enjoying coffee with friends when he heard the news.

MIGUEL VILLALOBOS: I happened to be here and it start coming, people - more people start coming and coming and coming. Before I knew it, the whole thing was packed and they closed the street.

ALLEN: Villalobos is retired now, part of that first wave of Cuban exiles who've been frequenting the restaurant since it opened. Yesterday, he was back with his daughter and two of his grandchildren. He was wearing a cap that said Cuba Volveremos - Cuba will be back.

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ALLEN: Inside, the walls of the restaurant are lined with mirrors, a nod to the French palace that gave the Versailles its name. Servers all wore T-shirts saying Viva Cuba Libre. The food is good, but the reason many Cuban-Americans come here is for conversation and company. Luly Valls is one of the managers. Her grandfather opened the restaurant in 1971.

LULY VALLS: We say it's la casa de exilio, which is like the home of the exiled people, you know? So people come here to share stories, to laugh, to cry, to remember Cuba, too. Anything political, anything happy, sad - it's like they're home, you know?

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ALLEN: As at many Cuban restaurants, outside is where the action is. Customers line up at the restaurant's ventanita, the coffee window, from early in the morning until early the next morning. Frank Cantero is a businessman who starts his day at Versailles, often running into his own customers there.

FRANK CANTERO: It's the meeting place, and there's - I mean, groups of people congregate here specifically, Cuban, Cuban-Americans, and there's waves of them, right? There's, like, a 7 o'clock group. There's 7:30 in the morning group, an 8 o'clock group and, you know - and it's been passed on from generation to generation.

ALLEN: Well over a thousand people thronged the street outside the Versailles in the early morning hours Saturday after word got out that Fidel Castro had passed on. But big crowds aren't unusual here. Large numbers gathered on earlier occasions when rumors of Castro's death proved unfounded. And Cantero says he's been here for several political campaign events.

CANTERO: Political figures need to make the stop here. They'll kick off a candidacy here. Jeb Bush started about, you know, a year and a half ago, you know, about his presidential run. Trump was here just a couple of months ago.

ALLEN: The Versailles is neutral politically, hosting Democratic and Republican politicians alike. Sometimes, Luly Valls says, with little or no notice.

VALLS: When Trump came by recently, we had no idea. He went into the bakery. I spoke to the staff and some of the customers that were there and they said he was very polite, very nice, drank coffee, said it was very strong (laughter).

ALLEN: Yvette Melby is a Cuban-American who lives in Pennsylvania now. When she's back in Miami, she says she comes to the Versailles to soak up some of the culture she grew up with.

YVETTE MELBY: My father has created lifelong friends just standing here having Cuban coffee, talking. This is what the Spanish people, Cuban people do. They just stand here and they talk and they talk and they haven't stopped talking about Cuban politics.

ALLEN: And for Cuban-Americans in Miami, the place to do it is at the Versailles Restaurant. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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