LITTLE HAVANA

After nearly 50 years, family-owned Little Havana restaurant Ayestaran serves its final meal

 

cherrera@MiamiHerald.com

For nearly 50 years, plates of lechon and ajiaco have passed through the kitchen of Ayestaran to feed hungry politicians, celebrities and just regular folk in Little Havana.

Now, the tradition has come to an end.

The family that owns the small Cuban restaurant, and the shopping center where it’s been located all these years, is selling the property at Southwest Seventh Street at 27th Avenue. Ayestaran served one final meal Wednesday to friends, family members and employees.

After the last diner left, the doors closed for the final time on a piece of Little Havana history. People said farewell to the restaurant and to the brothers who built the family-run business.

Rodolfo, 84, and Orestes Lleonart, 81, created a name for themselves in 1966, when three months after arriving from Cuba, they opened Ayestaran Supermarket. They later opened the restaurant.

“I think the combination of success they have had has been the best Cuban food ... for very good prices,” said Rudy Lleonart, Orestes’ 40-year-old son. “Everyone that entered through these doors felt familiar because the brothers were always attentive to everyone who came through.”

Working tirelessly from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, the two used all their money to slowly buy up the property on the block. In 1975, they closed the supermarket and opened what has become a landmark of the community.

For 38 years, 3 months and 3 days, the red and gray striped building has stood as the home of what Orestes said is the best Cuban food in Miami.

Open from 7 a.m. to as late at 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, seven days a week, 364 days a year, Ayestaran has seen generations of families, singers, politicians, journalists and even some movie stars cross its doors.

In 1995, the restaurant enjoyed a moment in the spotlight as one of the sites for the Antonio Banderas and Mia Farrow film, Miami Rhapsody. The restaurant was closed for several hours at night for the shooting of the film, in which Orestes was an extra.

Among the star-studded list of customers: Cuban singers Celia Cruz, Olga Guillot and Orlando Contreras, as well as Cuban journalist Agustin Tamargo.

The success of the business was built on Cuban sandwiches — and hard work.

The owners worked at least 12 to 14 hours a day. They would take one Sunday off every 15 days and only closed on nochebuena.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, the restaurant received offers to sell, but the owners started considering the possibility three years ago as they looked toward retirement. The property was sold to an intermediate who plans to develop a drugstore or another commercial enterprise.

For many of the long-time employees, Wednesday was a time they thought would never come.

Maria Teresa Jiron, a waitress for 25 years, teared up as she talked about expecting to work at Ayestaran until she grew old.

“This is the most beautiful thing that has happened in my life,” she said. “My bosses were the best bosses I ever had in my life.”

Her wages at Ayestaran helped her raise five children and two grandchildren.

Over decades of service, the restaurants’ employees felt like family.

Hector Miralda, a cook for 26 years, celebrated his son’s first birthday in 1994 at the restaurant’s banquet hall next door.

When customers came in, they often asked for him in the kitchen. He knew how most of them preferred their food.

“I’ve spent in this restaurant about half of my life,” he said. “What haven’t we lived in 26 years?”

For the children and grandchildren of Rodolfo and Orestes, Ayestaran is in their earliest memories.

Orestes Lleonart Jr., Orestes’ 38-year-old son, celebrated each of his birthday parties as a child at the banquet hall. He met actors and politicians. He ran around in the kitchen.

“It’s a piece of our identity,” he said.

Jorge Lleonart, Rodolfo’s 52-year-old son, was 5 when the supermarket opened and 13 when the restaurant opened. He did a lot of dishwashing in his childhood.

His son, 29-year-old Jorge Lleonart Jr., had been helping his father work since he was 14 every Sunday. Fifteen years later, he was still on the job.

“This is the most important building of my life,” he said.

Some customers had been coming to the restaurant just as long.

Over 34, Miami police officer Carlos Antunez found the perfect place to wind down.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid…” He stops. In a thick voice, full of emotion, Antunez looks away. “I’m sorry.”

Antunez said he rode his bike from Miami Senior High to the restaurant from the time he was 16. His favorite meal: a Cuban sandwich and an Ironbeer.

The restaurant reminded him of his Cuban roots.

“They are closing a chapter in the community,” Antunez said. “It’s like closing a long book.”

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