Little Havana - Flagami

Five times people gathered at Versailles to do more than sip cafecito

A large crowd reacts after Cuban musician Willy Chirino arrives at the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana on Nov. 26, 2016, following the announcement of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s death.
A large crowd reacts after Cuban musician Willy Chirino arrives at the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana on Nov. 26, 2016, following the announcement of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s death. Miami Herald/AP

There’s a sign towering over Calle Ocho boasting “the world’s most famous Cuban restaurant.” That sign is probably right.

By now, it’s tradition for politicians to have a cafecito in 90-degree weather while vying for the Cuban American vote. You’ve seen it as the backdrop of protests of Cuban relations policy, the parties after Miami Heat championships and the celebration of the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Versailles Restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana MATIAS J. OCNER Miami Herald

In Miami, Versailles is more than a place to talk politics over a plate of rice and beans. It has been the place for people to gather during important moments in local history since it opened in 1971.

As the 2020 campaign season kicks off, Democratic presidential candidates in town for the first round of debates have been flocking to the Homestead migrant child facility. Meanwhile, Republicans made their presence known with RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel talking to reporters and customers about socialism at Versailles’ ventanita — where she ordered a lemonade.

Here are five times Miami mobilized to Calle Ocho’s restaurant turned hotspot.

Castro dies. Little Havana celebrates. Nov. 26, 2016

Original story by David Ovalle, Joey Flechas, Vera Bergengruen, Carlos Frías and Patricia Mazzei

Parte de la comunidad cubana de Miami se reunieron en el popular restaurante Versailles después de conocerse el anuncio de la muerte del ex gobernante cubano Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro died, and Cuban Miami did what it does in times of community celebration: It spilled onto the streets of Little Havana — and Hialeah, and Kendall — to honk horns, bang pans, and set off more than a few fireworks, saved for exactly the sort of unexpected occasion worthy of their detonation.

The scene across Miami-Dade County, the cradle of the Cuban exile community, was one of pure, raw emotion. This time, after decades of false alarms, Castro’s death was real.

“I wish my dad was here to see this,” 27-year-old Abraham Quintero cried just before 2 a.m. Saturday.

Wearing an “I love Hialeah” T-shirt, he stood on West 49th Street and Ludlam Road, where police quickly set up watch posts to make sure impromptu revelers stayed safe.

“Beautiful madness,” 29-year-old Christopher Sweeney said, describing the scene.

Miamians celebrate the death of Cuba’s Fidel Castro in front of Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana on Saturday, November 26, 2016 AL DIAZ

John McCain discusses Elián Gonzalez’s status Dec. 11, 1999

Original story by Jeannette Rivera-Lyles, El Nuevo Herald

Presidential Candidate Sen. John McCain sips Cuban coffee at Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana with (left to right) Alberto Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation; Jorge Mas Santos, Chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation; and Juan Montes. Hector Gabino Staff

A long list of political leaders and presidential candidates joined their voices to tell the Cuban American community on Friday that Elián González, a 6-year-old boy found in the ocean on Thanksgiving, should not be sent to Cuba.

One of the first was the Republican candidate and senator John McCain, who was visiting Miami, where he shared a Cuban coffee with several exile leaders in the traditional Versailles restaurant.

“I believe that we must ensure that this young boy lives in freedom, not in slavery,” said McCain. “If not, the sacrifice his mother made has been in vain.” Elián’s mother, Elizabet González, died in the Florida Strait, in her failed attempt to escape the Castro regime. Her body was never found.

Miami Heat wins NBA championship two years in a row. Fans bang pots and pans on Calle Ocho. June 20, 2013

Original story by Joseph Goodman

That’s three titles for a town and two crowns for its king.

With a season, a playoffs, an NBA Finals and a Game 7 that will echo for years to come, the Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs 95-88 on Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena to win its second NBA championship in a row and cap the most exciting two weeks in South Florida sports history.

LeBron James played stunning, brilliant basketball to earn the NBA Finals MVP for the second straight year and Dwyane Wade, who played throughout the playoffs despite knee problems, saved his best for the final game of a grueling postseason. James finished with 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, going 12 of 23 from the field, 5 of 10 from three-point range and 8 of 8 from the free-throw line. Wade had 23 points, 10 rebounds and an assist and made 11 of his 21 attempts.

Obama shocks exile community by restoring U.S.-Cuba relations Dec. 17, 2014

Original story by Patricia Mazzei and Christina Veiga

The hard line dividing Miami and Havana, drawn more than half a century ago by Cuban exiles who shunned the dictatorship they left behind, suddenly softened Wednesday, leaving two stunned generations of Cuban Americans to grapple with what the future may hold.

President Barack Obama announced he would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after the communist regime led by Raúl Castro freed American political prisoner Alan Gross and other dissidents. That was welcome news to exiles but the president also agreed to a spy swap, the kind of deal stalwart Castro critics have long opposed.

Shock reverberated through Miami, the heart of the exile community, where detractors lambasted the policy shift — and the Democratic president — for what they called a betrayal. A frenzy of reporters and politicians descended on Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, a mecca of traditional anti-Castro sentiment.

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President Obama supporter Leandro Seoane, left, has a heated discussion with Enna Martin at Versailles Restaurant in Miami on December 17, 2014 after President Obama’s decision to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States. Al Diaz MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Celia Cruz launches photo book “Cubantime” Nov. 9, 2001

Original story by Andres Reynaldo, El Nuevo Herald

Celia Cruz holds up “Cubantime,” a book that celebrates Cuban life in America, by El Nuevo Herald photographer C.M. Guerrero and author Giselle Balido. They were all at Versailles Restaurant for a media lunch to launch the book. Cachao is on the left. Others who appeared in the book were also there. MARICE COHN BAND MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The book Cubantime, with writing by Giselle Balido and photography by Carlos M. Guerrero, was presented Thursday night at Café Nostalgia, in Miami Beach, with the presence of singer Celia Cruz, the author of the prologue.

“This is a labor of love to pay tribute to the anonymous heroes of Cuban exiles,” said Balido.

The piece gathered hundreds of photographs of Cuban Miami. Three generations of exiles are represented in scenes of daily life through the lens of Guerrero, an el Nuevo Herald photographer.

“I wanted to capture those magical moments of the people from town: bakers, people who sell vegetables in the street, housewives,” said Guerrero. “I wanted to leave a legacy for present and future generations.”

In the prologue, Celia noted that the book, which was published by Silver Lining Books in New York, is a tribute to all Cubans who have managed to keep their traditions alive while fighting to build a thriving community.

“They have taught their children and grandchildren to love our land,” said the artist.

Hours earlier, the Cubantime authors and editors , together with Celia, held a press conference at the restaurant Versailles, on Calle Ocho, which was attended by a large audience.

Celia Cruz and photographer Carlos M. Guerrero were at Versailles for the launch of the book, “Cubantime,” in November 2001. Jeffrey Boan Miami

Honorable mentions: Politicians and tiny cups of coffee

Enjoy the caffeinated trip down memory lane.

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Florida Republican gubematorial candidate Rick Scott, center, kicks off a 6-day statewide bus tour with a stop at Versailles in Little Havana this Wednesday morning July 21, 2010. He is walking a few blocks to a radio station with Sweetwater Mayor Manny Marono for an interview. Walter Michot

Michele Bachmann, center, raises her cup as she samples Cuban coffee alongside Felipe A. Valls, owner of Versailles, right, her husband, Marcus, and Congressman David Rivera, left, at the counter of Versailles. Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann visited the Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana and made a stop by the famous Cuban eatery Versailles during a stop in Florida on the campaign trail in 2011 in Miami, Florida. Carl Juste MIAMI HERALD STAFF

President Clinton holds-up a T-shirt that was given to him during a dinner at Little Havana restaurant Versailles, where several gathered to eat with the president in November 1996. On his left, Paul Cejas and at right, Maria Arias Rodham. Candace Barbot Miami Herald Staff

President George W. Bush greets the employees of Versailles Restaurant in 2006 after a breakfast with businessmen from the city.