MIAMI (AP) — The Versailles Restaurant celebrated 40 years of serving Cuban food, coffee and a heaping side of political debate Tuesday. The family-owned landmark has become a must-stop for politicians seeking to reach the Cuban exile community.
National politicians frequently visit Versailles, especially during election season. Mitt Romney and John McCain have campaigned there, and former President Bill Clinton is a repeat customer.
Hundreds gathered at the restaurant in Little Havana on Tuesday, with officials and other VIPs snacking on traditional Cuban appetizers of breaded cheese rolls and yucca fries, while dancers shimmied and swayed to a 10-piece band. Florida Gov. Rick Scott showed up and was interviewed outside by a local Spanish-language radio station.
A day earlier, South Florida U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen entered her congratulations to the Valls family into the Congressional Record. The family has owned and operated the restaurant, along with a number of other South Florida eateries, for three generations.
“As a kid, I never knew how big Versailles was,” said Nicole Valls, 28, daughter of owner Felipe Valls Jr. “It was just the place we came every day after school for dinner. And then you grow up and you realize that this place you know so well is the heart of a much bigger community.”
Valls recalled how media from around the globe camped out in the restaurant parking lot in 2006 following news that ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro had transferred power to his brother.
“It was so chaotic,” she said. “But now we have a plan.”
Versailles opened in 1971 and quickly became a gathering place for the community. Political consultant Emiliano Antunez said he recently moved his office across the street to keep a pulse on the political mood in Miami in advance of the 2012 elections.
Eduardo Padron, president of Miami-Dade College, said Versailles’ importance is two-fold.
“It’s not only a representation of the Cuban entrepreneurial spirit, but it’s a way and a place for us to preserve our cultural heritage for the next generation,” he said.
So political is Versailles, the restaurant delayed its festivities till after the recent Miami-Dade mayoral runoff.
On Tuesday, newly elected Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez credited the restaurant’s steak and plantains with helping him make it through the grueling final weeks before the election.