If you’re hungry when you arrive at Versailles (pronounced “ver-sally’s” in Miami), you have two options:
Option A: Walk inside and eat a delicious sit-down Cuban meal.
Option B: Walk to the ventanita for a snack to go, but don’t actually go anywhere.
Each option presents a different experience, and you really can’t go wrong with either one. Or, if you’ve structured your entire day around eating a sandwich that a friend 1,700 miles away recommended, double up and do both!
Option A: Walk Inside
Good choice. You’re hungry, it’s hot outside, and you want to be able to sit and enjoy your meal.
You grab a number ticket for the lunch and pastry counter, wait in line, and order the Medianoche sandwich your friend told you about. It’s even better than he said. Yes, it has the classic ingredients of ham, roast pork, cheese, and mustard expected in a “Cuban” sandwich, but it’s the bread that really makes it special.
The bread holding together the four slices of folded-over ham and pork is sweet enough to remind you of the Easter Pie your Italian aunts make every year. You wonder if the sweetness is baked in, or if the sandwich was buttered before being pressed.*
You sit back in your chair, reach for your Cubano coffee, and begin to take in the environment.
Many, but not all, of the patrons are older. No one is rushing. The vibe is casual and convivial. You feel a distinct atmosphere in the room, a sense that the owners’ heritage is expressed in more than just the recipes, that it’s in the value system that guides the restaurant. Is this, being surrounded by Cuban food, people, and values, enough to give someone a sense of what it’s like to be in Cuba?
If it is, that would explain why Versailles feels like the kind of destination that easily becomes a staple in the lives of its regulars, regardless of whether those regulars stay for hours on end or simply stop in to buy a tray of pastries to bring to a party.
And yet, you wonder if that is enough to make this place a landmark for Little Havana. You also wonder if now would be the perfect time for a second cup of coffee.
It is. You get up to exit the building, but not to leave Versailles.
Option B: Walk to the Ventanita
Good choice. Sun’s out, guns out, and you’re interested in more than just food.
The people gathered in the shade of Versailles’s palm trees is what you, and so many others, came for. Everyone is here today: young people, old people, car people, news people.
You seemingly don’t even need to purchase anything to be part of the community here. With the crowd spilling into the parking lot and onto the sidewalk, it’s hard to tell the patrons from the passers-by. This is less of a window service cafe and more of a crossroads on Calle Ocho.
Hence the news crews. They know where to go to check the pulse of the Cuban community in Miami. And that pulse most definitely beats.
In and across the street are a group of #TodosMarchamos demonstrators standing in solidarity with those demonstrating within Cuba for more rights, and for the release of political prisoners (more information here, here, and here).
Most of the demonstrators are on the sidewalk shaded from the sun, but not the gentleman in the street. He stands on the center line as cars zip past on each side, many of whose drivers honk in support. He doesn’t move. He must see the people who seem to be throwing a counterdemonstration next to his own. He doesn’t acknowledge them. His steadfastness and his sign speak for him:
Cubano: Si amas a Cuba, lucha por ella! “Otros” no lo harán… sin unidad, no habrá libertad
Which translates to:
Cubans: If you love Cuba, fight for her! “Others” will not … Without unity, there will be no freedom.
Is this too a small taste of what it’s like to be in Cuba?
Versailles, advertised as “The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant,” is in the United States. That may seem odd if you’re thinking in terms of political borders. Consider the slogan from a geographic perspective, and it makes more sense: Miami is closer to Cuba than it is to Georgia.
Then again, both politics and geography separate the two countries.
And yet, it only took two hours at Versailles for the separation between the United States and Cuba to feel lessened. The atmosphere and food each played a role in that lessening, but not as large a role as the people. Even if they came to Versailles for different reasons that day, the people still came together. String together fifty years of such days and you have a landmark destination, no matter what country you’re arriving from.
Essay and photos by Dan Meade
Date of visit: 10/09/2016
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