Versailles: More than Just a Restaurant

Although when it comes to Cuba (and its dictatorship) anniversaries usually consist of dark events- acts of repression, arrests, executions, etc.- the island nation has also produced a plethora of things worth celebrating.  When the 52 year old dictatorship was implanted in the island, the (then) new authorities of the country started snatching away and robbing properties, households, and businesses which in their majority had been established from scratch by the hard work and sacrifice of Cubans.  Many of these Cubans were expelled  from the country while many others realized they had no future or that they were being persecuted for their political and ideological beliefs, turning to exile.  And without a doubt, this exile experience has been nothing short of difficult.  Families have been separated and sons and daughters have had to live knowing that their fathers, mothers, and  grandparents die in the island and that they are not able to be with them to bid them their final goodbyes.  With more luck, other entire families have been able to leave their country together, but e nevertheless suffering as they cannot see their beloved homeland again.  An absurd and totalitarian ideology has tried to erase countless years of culture, work, and values, but all those who physically left Cuba never abandoned her, carrying with them the pieces of the island right next to their hearts.  And wherever they have walked, despite how close or far it may reside from Cuba, they have planted those pieces and have cultivated them with much dignity and hope.  That is precisely the story which Versailles Restaurant represents, for it is a sentimental symbol for all Cubans who have had to leave their own land in hopes of finding freedom.  And it has just celebrated it’s 40th birthday.

Versailles is more than just a restaurant, although one cannot avoid mentioning their exquisite and traditional dishes- ropa vieja (shredded beef), fried yuca, Cuban sandwiches, just to name a few.  The restaurant, established by Felipe Vals in 1971, also serves as a sort of sanctuary for Cubans.  Here, one can find politicians seeking votes or international celebrities wanting to try some “exotic” foods, but the majority of the loyal patrons are those Cubans who, with the passing of the years, still deeply miss their land and find those missing pieces among the tables, coffee windows, and the bakery of the restaurant.  Often, when people describe the place, they say it’s a “place for grandparents”, where the “old folk” go to talk politics and about yesterday’s Cuba.  But in reality, when one walks into the mirrored salon lined up with green chairs and white tables, one can quickly spot out young faces, old faces, families, friends, coworkers, and students.

I’m not speaking just for myself when I say that many Cuban families prefer celebrating the graduations of their kids, or their birthdays, at Versailles.  For the young ones, this may sometimes be “uncool”, considering that their schoolmates and buddies instead meet up at Chilis, Fridays, or Starbucks.  But as years pass they look back and smile, glad they chose Versailles back then, that bright place which reminds them of grandma’s kitchen.  It really is a source of pride, of identity- of our version of Starbucks, our unique brand which we share with all are other non-Cuban friends.  Versailles is also a place visited by couples, especially during the weekend when its doors are open late past midnight.  The couples chat over cold and refreshing mojitos while crowds of concertgoers walk in at 2 am talking about how great the Willy Chirino show was, or the theater play, the Marlins game, the Heat game, or the U2 concert, even.  And when that Cuban-ness stirs inside Cubans, Versailles is the place to be.  The media cameras learned this lesson very well.  Whenever an oppressive crack down occurs on the island (which, anyone that knows anything about Cuba knows that this is often), when the dictators announce that they are suffering from a possibly terminal disease, or at times when they fumble their authority, the Versailles coffee windows get crammed with patriots who are seeking their lost piece of land more than they are seeking the aroma of coffee.  Or maybe they seek both things equally.  For many, the opinions heard at these windows are much more refreshing, and even ring truer, than those that can be read on newspapers or heard during intellectual discourses regarding Cuba.  It is a place flowing with stories.  Legendary singer Olga Guillot was a regular, waving at fans and sitting down chatting with them occasionally, telling jokes and taking pictures.  The creator of Mambo and author of countless Cuban classics, Cachao, was another regular, routinely having breakfast at the place.  People who quietly, or publicly, dedicate their lives to achieving Cuba’s freedom sit here on a regular basis.  Chances are the guy sitting across from you was a political prisoner back in the island, at least for ten years. Or maybe the woman.

For 40 years this is what Versailles has stood for.  That’s why this July 12th, crowds and crowds of Cubans (and non-Cubans) showed up to the restaurant, waiting in line to dine at 1971 prices while listening to live Cuban music- son, guaracha, guaguanco.  1971 prices? Yes, owner Felipe Vals decided to give the gift of rolling back prices for customers so that they would pay the same amount for the same items on the same menu back in ’71, the year Versailles first opened its door to the hungry public.  Those at the commemorative event were of all ages, and locals, which in Miami means ‘living here but coming from all over Latin America, or the world’.  One could see grandparents and grandkids in line, couples on dates, groups of friends straight out of work or summer school, professionals with suits and ties, tourists snapping photos, and overall, those who were once again searching for that piece of land that belongs to them.

This exile has lasted a long time.  With each passing year we Cubans see how more and more of “our own” start disappearing.  Large families go down in size, but new ones are born and the traditions get passed on from one to another.  We safeguard these traditions, and nowhere better are they preserved and paid tribute to than within the mirrored walls of Versailles.  For most Cubans in Miami, Versailles has perfectly conserved the memories of our families.  It’s as if, when we go there, our loved grandparents are still there, serving us our food and telling us stories about that Cuba which we perhaps have never set foot in, yet step into every time we open the doors of Versailles.  Versailles has not let Cuba die, it has not left the island’s music behind, or its customs, or its witty sayings.  It has helped define what it means to be Cuban, proving a few things- among them that Cuba will never belong solely to a few hateful old men in olive green and that it’s true meaning means love, family, respect, hope.  It has also stood as a testament of success and of willpower, proving that when we Cubans are free, we can be successful, breaking records, working hard for our possessions, and always having the desire to do more.

Cuba has been conserved thanks to the work of exiles which have never, and will never (thanks to the new generation), let her disappear.  And Versailles has played a key role in this.  Because of that, I thank its owners, and all those who keep it running.  Happy 40th birthday, Versailles, I hope you celebrate plenty more.  Soon, we will all celebrate in Cuba.

Roll-back ’71 prices

Does this really need a caption? All that food for 30 bucks? Thanks, Versailles!

Versailles: More than Just a Restaurant

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