Google Earth tells me that it’s 2,756 miles from my home in Seattle to the Versailles restaurant in Miami. It’s worth the trip.
In 1977, I was young enough that any restaurant was a special treat, even Pizza Hut or Burger King. That year, my parents and I drove to Miami for Christmas. We spent the morning at Vizcaya, an Italian Renaissance and Baroque estate on Biscayne Bay. Built in 1915 by James Deering of International Harvester, Vizcaya has over 70 rooms, filled with 16th- to 19th-century furniture and art, and 10 acres of lush gardens. In short, it’s a palace.
It would be hard to follow Vizcaya with our usual picnic or burger lunch. Instead, my parents took me to the Versailles, a restaurant with an elegant exterior, almost worthy of Vizcaya. Located on Calle Ocho, or 8th Street, there are elegant awnings with the restaurant’s name, a fancy railing on the top, and concrete cherubs above the doors. When you walk in the door, you’re first overwhelmed by the size and bustle — the place seats almost 400 — and the large chandeliers and unusual backlit mirrors.
Back when my parents first took me to the Versailles, it had only been open for about five years. Even then, it was the place to see and be seen, the place to make business deals and big plans. Thirty years later, the place always seems full, with Cuban immigrants and their children brushing elbows with cruise-ship tourists. My place is somewhere between the two. I’m not just a tourist, I have a small connection to this vibrant culture and cuisine. My father’s mother was married to a Cuban for about ten years. My Midwest-born mother, who visited Cuba before meeting my father, was an adventurous cook who served the family picadillo and arroz con pollo instead of meatloaf and spaghetti.
We were seated by an efficient hostess in a green pantsuit who handed us the multi-page menu. The prices are surprisingly affordable, with many entrees and specials under $10. There are too many choices.
Although some tourists opt to return to the Versailles every day of their Miami stay, we only had time for one midday meal there. I wanted to try the Ropa Vieja (“old rags,” or shredded beef), the roasted pork special, the shrimp and grouper. Instead, I ordered a Cuban sandwich, because the Versailles is also a bakery, and I knew I couldn’t reproduce either the bread or the filling at home.
After I handed back my menu, I looked around. That’s when I realized why the prices are so reasonable.
The tables are formica. The placemats are paper. And the chairs are stick-to-your-bare-legs vinyl. The exterior facade is just that, a facade. Inside, the decor is kind of like an embellished Denny’s.
Still, the Versailles serves good, plain Cuban food. Dad had the red bean soup, a medley of complex flavors, and Arroz con Pollo, a platter of chicken piled high with yellow rice. Barry had picadillo in a plantain pie crust. My side order of fried sweet plantains was a carmelized show-stopper, and since the plate was next to his elbow, Barry couldn’t restrain himself.
We did manage to leave room for dessert, with the help of a to-go box for about two-thirds of Dad’s gigantic meal. He ordered the Dulce de Leche, a carmelized pudding made from milk and sugar. I tried a tiny bite and nearly sent my pancreas into shock — this is something for only the most dedicated sweet tooth. Barry had the Versailles Custard, a creme brulee with a hidden bit of Tres Leches cake in the middle. I opted for a simple dish of ice cream — because where else but South Florida can you get mamey sapote ice cream?
The efficient army of waiters and waitresses moved rapidly, carrying large trays and tiny cups of thick Cuban coffee. I ordered mine “con leche,” or with milk. It reminded me of the joke, “I like a little coffee with my milk.” Instead of a large cup of coffee and a tiny pitcher of cream, the waiter brought me a large cup of warm milk and a tiny pitcher of coffee. It was the perfect ending to my meal.
I don’t know when I’ll travel the 2,756 miles again. I just know I’ll be back, because the food is good, the decor is amazing, and the people-watching can’t be beat.