MIAMI — If you’ve seen the lines of people outside of “la ventanita,” or walk-up window, waiting to buy a small cup of sweet Cuban coffee and a pastry to go with it, then you’re staring at a Miami tradition credited to a Cuban American who left an indelible mark on the city.
Felipe Valls Sr., known for the now ubiquitous coffee windows and the founder of one of the country’s most iconic Cuban restaurants, Versailles on Calle Ocho (Eighth Street), died Saturday in Miami at the age of 89 from natural causes, according to his family.
Since then, Miami residents as well as celebrities and elected officials have been paying tribute, especially on social media.
Versailles, which celebrated its 50th anniversary a year ago, became synonymous with the city’s Cuban American community, a requisite pitstop for politicians seeking to connect with voters — former Presidents Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and Trump all made a stop at Versailles, as well as the presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and John McCain.
It’s also drawn celebrities, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and has been a destination for international tourists looking to eat a Cuban meal or just hang out outside la ventanita, sipping a Cuban coffee, nibbling a guava pastry and absorbing the surrounding culture.
But it was always a place for the locals too.
“I like going because people are always talking about Cuba and I feel at home there, like a fish in water,” Miami resident Rosita Gonzalez, who came from Cuba in 1999, said in an interview last year.
“People in Cuba have heard of Versailles, so it’s a point of reference,” Gonzalez said, about why she brought visiting relatives to the restaurant. “It’s showing them the soul of Miami.”
Music producer Emilio Estefan Jr., the husband of singer Gloria Estefan, told the Miami Herald, that Valls and his son, Felipe Jr., “really brought our culture to Miami, and they became an entity on everything that has to be about Cuba. … It’s beautiful that when you leave you know that everybody felt so proud of you and that you were so loved by the community.” Emilio Estefan’s father grew up with Valls in Cuba.
Through the decades, the front of Versailles became the gathering place for huge crowds during protests and rallies; it was a place for TV cameras and journalists from around to world to come and take the Cuban American community’s pulse.
In 2021, when Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro died, thousands of Cuban Americans whose families had left the country decades earlier gathered in front of Versailles. It was an event the Valls family had spent years preparing for, knowing the restaurant would become a huge gathering place for the community.
“I remember getting that call on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I drove over here, and ended up staying through the night,” Valls’ granddaughter, Nicole Valls, told NBC News in a 2021 interview. “I remember on Saturday going up to the roof of Versailles and just looking down and you couldn’t see anything but people.”
“There’s nothing like Versailles, especially for Cubans,” Nicole Valls said. “This is kind of their ground zero, the epicenter of the Cuban American community. Whenever anything happens, this is where everyone gathers.”
After Castro’s revolution, Valls, a successful businessman in Cuba, fled in 1960 with his pregnant wife, Aminta Viso, and their two children.
He started over doing odd jobs in Miami, including washing dishes in restaurants. Then he began importing espresso machines, helping supermarkets and other businesses set up ventanitas, a new concept in Miami at the time, as Cubans began settling in the area.
Not long before his death, Valls would still go to Versailles from time to time. The Valls family now owns several restaurants, among them La Carreta, which is down the street.
On its website, Versailles calls itself “the world’s most famous Cuban restaurant.”