Where is the first place you take your cousin from Iowa when he comes to visit Miami? maybe after South Beach?
Where is the first place that candidates and foreign and local media cameras go during a campaign season to take the public’s political temperature? And for the past 51 years, where can you get a late-night snack after a show or game when nothing less than a steaming plate of old clothes Or will a drink of rich black coffee with conversations in English, Spanish and every language in between do the trick?
The Versalles Cuban kitchen on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, naturally, where the person at the next table was once former presidents Bill Clinton, who dined there, George W. Bush, who came for breakfast, and Donald Trump, who visited the bakery while on the campaign trail for a second term in 2020.
Pop power couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z dined at Versailles. Local global superstars Gloria and Emilio Estefan run their own restaurants and music empire, but they also love what Versailles and its founder have to offer.
There would be no Cuban restaurant in Versailles without its founder Felipe Valls Sr. He was the man with the vision that led to a culinary and social and cultural milestone in the Miami neighborhood that became known throughout the world.
Valls Sr. died Saturday in Miami at age 89.
Music producer and restaurateur Emilio Estefan Jr. remembers the stories his father, Emilio Sr., told him about his childhood friend, Felipe Valls, in Cuba when they were children.
“They grew up together,” Estefan told the Miami Herald on Saturday after learning of his friend’s death.
“Incredible people who came at the beginning of exile and I am so proud, so proud, and I told them so many, many times. They worked hard and he was a great role model for many of us. Definitely the giants of the exile community. I was so happy that I told him how proud I was of Felipe and Felipe’s son because they really brought our culture to Miami and became an entity in everything that has to do with Cuba: the freedom of Cuba. He was always proud to support that,” Estefan said.
“You know something? The long term is, I think, the legacy you leave and I don’t think I could have done a better job,” Estefan said. “It’s an incredible loss. But it’s beautiful that when you leave you know that everyone felt so proud of you and that you were so loved by the community.”
Such a legacy.
READ MORE: The ‘most famous Cuban restaurant in the world’ celebrates 50 years in Miami
In the province of Santiago de Cuba, where Valls was born on March 8, 1933, he owned several businesses, including gas stations, a restaurant and the Lido Supper Club, as well as auto parts dealers. In 1947, his parents sent him to the United States to attend high school at the prestigious Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. When he graduated in 1950, he returned to his hometown.
At the age of 27, Valls arrived in Miami in December 1960 with his wife, who was seven months pregnant, and their two children. Here, he worked as a busboy in a much earlier incarnation of South Beach.
Valls then found work at a restaurant equipment company in downtown Miami, where he designed restaurant kitchens, installed refrigeration equipment and salvaged appliances from closed restaurants for repair and resale.
In 1963, Valls was selling used restaurant equipment. He imported espresso machines and invented the window, so coffee shops could continue to sell coffee and pastries to street customers before air conditioning became commonplace.
One of his regular customers had asked the clever Valls to help him remodel his open-air market. They wanted to close on the market to take advantage of two important newcomers to the community in the early 1960s: Cuban exiles and air conditioning.
The owners also wanted Valls to find them something to introduce into the chilly confines they had heard of but couldn’t find in the US: a commercial espresso machine.
“La ventanita was born out of necessity,” Valls told the Miami Herald earlier this year. And so, Versailles, in 1971.
“Felipe Valls was a giant, a gentleman, and emanated the best of a generation of Cuban exiles who reshaped life and culture in Miami,” said Carlos Frías, former Miami Herald food editor and author, now host of WLRN’s Sundial program.
“He has founded more than 20 restaurants since coming from Cuba, and is arguably the most important restaurateur in Miami history. He was a literal trendsetter, making Cuban cuisine mainstream, if not ubiquitous in South Florida.
“He is also responsible for inventing the concept of ‘ventanita,’ the pedestrian windows that are an indelible part of Miami culture. What do you call a man who created an icon, if not an icon himself? Frías told the Herald.
READ MORE: The First Little Window: How Miami Invented the Windows That Imported Cuban Coffee Culture
But before he was the icon behind an icon, Valls was earning enough money to put down a small piece of land at Eighth Street and 35th Avenue that he thought would make a good spot for the Cuban restaurant of his dreams. He had previously bought the Badia restaurant in Little Havana and sold it to raise the capital for Versailles.
Friends and even family thought he was, well, wrong. The location, they said, was too far west of the city center to attract regular customers. Valls was determined. His son, Felipe Valls Jr., then a teenager, was put to work as a busboy and waiter.
The father and son couple would open dozens of restaurants from those early days, including La Carreta, Casa Juancho, Casa Cuba, La Palma and their signature Versailles.
That little coffee stand that was once Versailles was turned into a grand restaurant with distinctive mirror work in the main room designed by decorator Juan Pérez-Cruz, Pitbull’s uncle. With its attached bakery, Versailles would eventually occupy an entire block.
“This is where you come to take the pulse of our community. … Versalles is the Cuban exile who refuses to kneel,” Valls told the Miami New Times in 2014.
Today, Grupo Valls has 2,000 employees and owns nine La Carretas in South Florida, MesaMar in Coral Gables, Casa Cuba in South Miami and Casa Juancho, a longtime Spanish restaurant in Little Havana.
According to the family, Valls Group will continue to be led by its CEO and Chairman, Felipe Jr., along with Valls’ daughter, Jeannette Valls Edwards, and her granddaughters.
survivors and services
Valls’s survivors include: her children Leticia, Jeannette and Felipe Jr.; 10 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and her partner Natty Elias. His wife, Aminta Viso de Valls, preceded him in death.
Visitation will be from 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm on December 7 and from 1:00 pm to 10:00 pm on December 8 at Caballero Rivero Funeral Home, 3344 SW Eighth St. Mass will be held at the Church of the Little Flower on the date and time that was determined. The Valls family requests donations in memory of Felipe to the Jackson Memorial Foundation.