Cuban eatery celebrates hearty food and politics

Thu Jul 14, 2011 12:57pm EDT
 
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By Manuel Rueda

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.   Continued...

 
<p>Customers drink coffee at Versailles restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Florida February 24, 2008. REUTERS/Eric Thayer</p>