Versailles: Miami's Cuban Cuisine Palace
by arielle castillo
Versailles, the long-running Cuban restaurant in Little Havana, is miles away both physically and spiritually from its namesake, the Château de Versailles in France. Yet both are iconic landmarks in their respective towns—a bolded item in every guidebook, a requisite stop for tourists, a place locals take out-of-town visitors.
Miami’s Versailles was founded by Felipe Valls Sr. as a humble coffee window and sandwich shop in 1971. These days, it’s a sprawling, 370-seat establishment that has partly cribbed its decor from the French palace, keeping the disorienting walls of mirrors and elaborate chandeliers, while mixing it with vinyl-covered, diner-style chairs and plastic bread baskets. The look is at once 17th-century France and ’70s Miami.
“Although it doesn’t look run-down, it seems like a trip back,” says Steve Roitstein, leader of the Miami-based Afro-Cuban funk band PALO!. “The French theme and the mirrored walls set Versailles apart from any other Cuban restaurant in Miami.”
Miami’s Versailles is also, in its own way, the seat of a small empire, anchoring a massive holding of various restaurants, Cuban and otherwise, throughout Miami. But at the heart of it all is the original location, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year to fanfare across our Latin American community and its extended diaspora. Attendees at the official celebration party included diverse local luminaries, from Miami- Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Univision TV host Lili Estefan to Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College.
Thanks to its late hours and proximity to a handful of theaters, Versailles has always attracted a crowd of artsy types and night crawlers. But it’s also famous, thanks to both its longevity and its prime location on the Calle Ocho strip, as a de facto political landmark. It’s a place for impromptu protests and hours-long informal debates. The smartest would-be politicians make the restaurant a requisite stop on their campaign tours, regardless of extremes on the political spectrum. Everyone from Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich has visited in an attempt to court the Cuban-American vote.
“Whenever I meet with anyone from out of the area for a business lunch, I like to take them to Versailles because I see the place as a Miami culinary landmark,” says Michael Mut, a social media strategist. “But you never know when a spontaneous anti-Castro demonstration might break out, or which Miami politico or talking head you might run into.”
Lunchtime, though, is a scene more serene than the early-morning or latenight hours. Don’t come at noon, for instance, expecting a rush—this place runs on Cuban time, so you’ll find the breakfast crowd still lingering at the outdoor window, and mostly sunburned vacationers inside. “There are two crowds here,” says Glenn Lindgren, a coauthor of the cookbook Three Guys from Miami Cook Cuban and cofounder of the website icuban.com. “There’s the outdoor coffee window crowd, which is energized and very local. The indoor crowd is much more sedate and mannered.”
Things start heating up an hour or so later, when busboys in dress shirts and vests start whisking baskets of generously buttered Cuban toast to the arriving groups of businesspeople and neighborhood residents.
As dressed up as both the servers and some of the patrons may be, though, the food remains decidedly unfancy—as the best Cuban home cooking is. Platters like the Classic and Criollo samplers arrive on foot-long oval restaurant china, filled to the edges with mounds of rice, black beans, and sweet plantains. The star protein is often pork or beef, but various local seafood specials rotate according to season, often accompanied by garlicky shrimp al ajillo and dressed in tomato sauce, onions, and peppers.
But with a menu spanning more than a half-dozen laminated pages, the best selections also venture deep into the reaches of Cuban cuisine. “It’s food you rarely see on typical Cuban restaurant menus. We’re talking cream of malanga soup, ceviche, Spanish tortillas, oxtail or lamb stew, and Andalusian pig’s feet,” says Lindgren. “Everybody orders a Cuban sandwich or medianoche at lunchtime, but for something different and delicious, we tell people to order the Spanish baguette—moist slices of Spanish chorizo, serrano ham, and Manchego cheese on a baguette.”
Unlike consciously fancier places, however, there’s no attempt to gussy up the food or turn it into any sort of fusion. Overall, it’s familiar and reliable, just like the restaurant itself. “It’s a combination of history—in a city where history seems to fall to the wrecking ball every day—and the vibe: old-line and traditional,” says Lindgren. “Nothing has changed very much since the day they opened.” And unlike the case of the original Versailles in France, Miami continues to welcome its rule. Another 40 years of Versailles seems like a given.
photography by gary james
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.