MIAMI (Reuters) - Miami's Versailles, an iconic meeting place of Cuban exiles touted as "the most famous Cuban restaurant in the world," this week celebrated 40 years of hearty meals and even heartier politics.
Florida Governor Rick Scott, Cuban exile politicians, former political prisoners and clients of all generations packed the Little Havana eatery to celebrate the birthday of a place that over the years has become a symbol of opposition to Fidel Castro's communist rule in Cuba.
"This is where you come to take the pulse of our community," said 85-year-old owner Felipe Valls, addressing a crowd of 300 guests who included three local mayors, a dozen TV crews and prominent members of Miami's Cuban community.
Founded four decades ago, Versailles' low prices and home-style Cuban cooking quickly turned it into a well known gathering point for political exiles seeking company and someone to share their opinions with.
The restaurant, with its mirror-lined interior, still serves traditional Cuban meals such as black bean soup, the shredded meat dish known as "ropa vieja" (old clothes) and oven-roasted pork. It also serves "cafe cubano", the black, sweet caffeine jolt many Cubans are addicted to.
It soon became a focal point of passionate Cuban exile sentiment, for example during the community's failed campaign to keep child shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez in the United States in the emotional 2000 custody battle between his feuding relatives.
When news broke that Fidel Castro was severely ill in 2006, media organizations rushed their reporters and trucks to Versailles to gather exile sentiment, anticipating a wild party if Castro died.
"We are always interested in what's happening in Cuba," said Calixto Campos, 77, as he had lunch with two fellow exiles in the restaurant's dining room. Chatting about events "on the island" is almost obligatory at Versailles.
The editor of a Cuban opposition magazine, Campos left Cuba in the early sixties after serving a two-year jail sentence for his political activities.
"Versailles is the Cuban exile that refuses to kneel down," said owner Valls, who was a successful businessman in Cuba but left the island in 1961 as Castro revealed his Marxist leanings two years after his nationalist Revolution. Valls opened the restaurant 10 years after arriving in the United States.
In a state that remains pivotal in U.S. elections and where the growing Cuban exile community has developed a powerful voice, Versailles has traditionally drawn local and national politicians eager to court the Cuban American vote.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was a regular visitor and others who have dropped by over the years include former President Bill Clinton and Republican presidential hopefuls.
Current Florida Governor Scott was clearly aware of the restaurant's political aura when he presented Valls with a celebratory plaque this week.
"I look forward to the day when we can have one of your coffees in a free Cuba," he said.
Staff say Versailles' clientele reflects the shifting microcosm of the Cuban-American community, mixing die-hard
anti-communists who are waiting to celebrate the end of Castro rule in Cuba and younger exiles less interested in politics.
Eloisa Gil, a waitress for nine years, says 20- and 30-year-olds come mostly in the late hours of the night.
"They come here after they go to nearby theaters, or after they come out of clubs," she said.
Teresita Mayans, 78, who left the island in 1985 after spending six months in prison, says younger Cuban arrivals in Miami are and more interested in sending money to and visiting their families back home on the island.
"They're not going to stand up and resist the regime like we did," she said.
Clients young and old packed the restaurant for the birthday bash, many drawn by a special offer in which everything in the menu was reduced to 1971 prices.
"Masitas de Puerco" (fried pork chunks) went for $3.75, including a side of rice, beans and plantains. "Picadillo a la Cubana" (seasoned ground beef with rice) cost merely $1.95. After dinner, customers sipped on 20-cent espressos.
Jerry Sanchez, drove from Westin, Florida, with his wife Margaret and their three teenage children, lining up for almost an hour and a half to get a table.
Born and raised in California by Cuban parents, Sanchez, 47, recalled his first visit to Versailles during a childhood trip with his father to Florida.
"For the first time I could see my dad in his environment," said Sanchez.
"He was happy and he felt like he was home."
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Jerry Norton