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Posted November 19, 2007 by publisher in Cuban Americans

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Enrique Martinez carries an order at the Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho in Little Havana


Felipe Valls has a soft spot for the crowd of men that converge, like clockwork, at the counter of his Calle Ocho eatery for their daily ritual of cafecitos and politics.

He has even toyed with the idea of a sign outside his landmark Versailles restaurant, a tongue-in-cheek riff on McDonald’s famous boast.

‘‘Castro killed here over a billion times,’’ Valls said, tracing the outline of his imaginary sign in the air. ``In that corner, they have killed that sucker at least a hundred times every day.’‘

When the day comes that Fidel Castro does, indeed, die, Valls knows there will be bedlam at Versailles, the unofficial town square of el exilio.

And just like the city of Miami and the Department of Homeland Security, the family behind the landmark eatery has a post-Castro plan in place.

Valls has a team of employees ready to cordon off the parking lot and control traffic. He has assigned parking spots for an undisclosed amount to media outlets seeking a prime perch to cover the inevitable celebrations as thousands swarm Calle Ocho.

And CNN, the first American media outlet to open a bureau in Havana, has not only secured a parking space, it has made arrangements to rent a Valls-owned building overlooking Versailles—taking over empty second-floor offices and putting dibs on phone lines and electrical outlets.

Valls realized he needed a plan for Versailles after last year’s news that Fidel Castro had taken ill and had ceded power to his brother, Raúl—sparking impromptu celebrations up and down Eighth Street and an accompanying media maelstrom at Versailles.

‘‘It was absolute mayhem,’’ Valls said of the crowds of cheering and flag-waving revelers that clogged the street in front of his eatery. ``There were 10 to 12 media trucks in the parking lot, throwing wires over our awnings. Brazilian TV, Spanish TV, Al Jazeera, BBC, all fighting for spots.’‘

That a family-owned restaurant would have to brace itself for an international event such as the passing of a foreign leader is a particularly Miami phenomenon—one that not even the restaurant’s founder, Felipe Valls Sr., would have dreamed of when he opened Versailles 35 years ago.

But Versailles has long outgrown its early days as a neighborhood joint: It’s an obligatory campaign stop for political candidates—from local politicos to presidential hopefuls—trying to woo the Cuban vote. Presidents Clinton and Bush, 41 and 43, along with former Gov. Jeb Bush, have stopped by for photo ops and a quick bite.

Artists of all stripes—from legendary musician Cachao to hip-hop royalty Jay-Z and girlfriend Beyoncé—have passed by to dine in relative anonymity. A few weeks ago, Robert Duvall devoured a palomilla steak while his tango-dancer wife enjoyed a salad.

It has been featured on Food Network, Travel Channel and myriad other television spots. Just last week, Cigar Aficionado magazine phoned, hoping to use the restaurant as a backdrop for an upcoming photo shoot.

Not a problem, said the younger Valls.

‘‘Everyone who comes to Versailles, from the customers to the busboy to the managers, know they are subject to being filmed or interviewed,’’ said Valls, 49.

But while the restaurant does not accept reservations, it does have a policy for the busloads of tourists who pass by: Travel agencies must call ahead for large groups—and leave before the lunchtime rush.

Even those well-versed in Cuban politics and history can’t resist the gravitational pull of Versailles.

Posing under the familiar burgundy awnings, author Andrea O’Reilly Herrera smiled recently as her friend snapped a photo.

‘‘I couldn’t tell my mom I didn’t get a cafecito here,’’ said O’Reilly Herrera, director of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the editor of Cuba: Idea of a Nation Displaced.

Despite the occasional A-list celebrity or presidential visit, the majority of customers are local—and fiercely loyal—patrons like Juan Villasana.

A spry 81-year-old, Villasana has been visiting Versailles almost daily since it opened.

‘‘We created here what we couldn’t have in Cuba,’’ he said, waiting at the outside counter for one of the green-clad waitresses to hand him his cortadito—half cream, half Cuban espresso. Nearby, an elderly gentleman loudly complained about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a close ally of the Castro regime.

``This is where we come to talk politics, to talk sports. And most important, for nostalgia. Versailles belongs to us.’‘

Back when the elder Valls purchased the small tract of land at Southwest Eighth Street and 35th Avenue for $97,000, some fellow entrepreneurs scoffed.

The location was too far west, too far removed from downtown to attract sufficient customers, they said.

Valls, dubbed by some the ‘‘czar of Cuban cuisine,’’ was always something of a forward thinker.

He started in the restaurant business in the late 1960s, shortly after he arrived in Miami from Cuba with two children, a pregnant wife and little money.

Valls had never owned a restaurant in his native country, but he was a businessman whose enterprises included a service station and auto parts dealership in Santiago de Cuba.

After a brief stint washing dishes at the Delmonico Hotel on South Beach, he went to work for a restaurant supply company—persuading his boss to let him push Cuban coffee machines to local vendors, sensing the economic potential of displaced Cubans wanting a taste of home. He eventually started his own supply business—and decided to get into the restaurant game himself.

His first restaurant was a small place called Badias, which he sold a few years later and used the proceeds for the $10,000 down payment for the Versailles site—then a small florist shop.

Valls built a small empire on standard Cuban fare like palomilla steak and flan.

He put his preteen son to work, bussing tables or working with maintenance crews after school.

‘I would ask the foreman, `What is the hardest job?’ ‘’ said the elder Valls, 74. ‘And I would say, `OK, wait for Felipe. He’ll do it.’ ‘’

His son nodded with a wry smile.

‘‘There was no better example of tough love,’’ he said.

Now, the Valls Group’s restaurant holdings include Casa Juancho, an upscale Spanish-style restaurant, and the La Carreta chain of Cuban restaurants, with outposts from Calle Ocho to Doral to Pembroke Pines.

And a third generation of Valls has joined the family business: The eldest of Felipe Jr.‘s six daughters, Nicole, recently graduated from the University of Miami’s business school and works alongside her father and grandfather, pitching in to manage the family restaurants in Broward and at Miami International Airport.

‘‘I’ve always wanted to work here. It’s what my family has always done,’’ said Nicole Valls, 25, who worked summer jobs at the Versailles bakery next door, as well as the main office.

She’s on Fidel watch, too—anxious at every rumor of Castro’s imminent demise, ready to jump in her car and head to Versailles to help out.

Although the city has plans for a post-Castro ceremony at the Orange Bowl, Felipe Valls Sr. says he knows the crowds will come nonetheless.

‘‘They can pick any place they want, the Orange Bowl, anywhere, and people tell me they are still coming to Versailles,’’ he said.

Father and son note that it won’t mean a boon in business.

When Castro took ill last year, thousands crowded outside—but inside Versailles, ‘‘it was dead,’’ said the younger Valls.

Not that they will be worried about the bottom line that day.

‘‘We’re proud that it’s going to be celebrated here, but number-wise, it’s actually a negative,’’ said Felipe Valls Jr. ``We don’t mind. We’re happy to lose half our sales that day.’’

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