Felipe Valls, 89, Whose Cuban Restaurant Became a Political Hub, Dies
Felipe A. Valls Sr., a Cuban-exile who invented Miami’s hallmark walk-up coffee windows, started a Cuban-cuisine restaurant chain and founded Versailles Restaurant, which for decades has drawn wide attention as a vibrant hub for politicians and throngs of protesters, died on Nov. 26 in Miami. He was 89.
His death, at Jackson Memorial Hospital, was confirmed by his granddaughter Nicole Valls, the vice president of operations for his restaurant group. No specific cause was given.
Mr. Valls founded Versailles, the self-proclaimed “world’s most famous Cuban restaurant,” as a small coffee shop on Calle Ocho, near Little Havana, in 1971. Expanded and remodeled twice since then, the restaurant has been a local landmark for more than 50 years and the focal point for marches, protests, political events and community celebrations. Cubans in Miami — and reporters taking the pulse of Cuban American sentiment on any number of issues — know to descend on Versailles when news breaks.
For weeks last year, the restaurant was a gathering spot for Cuban exiles and Cuban Americans showing support for Cubans on the island who had denounced the Communist government and decried shortages of food and medicine — one of the biggest outbreaks of protests there in decades.
Versailles was the gathering place for human rights protesters in the 1980s and ’90s, when more than 100,000 people marched on Calle Ocho and Little Havana nearby. Crowds converged there during the custody battle over Elián González, who was found off the Florida coast in 1999 clinging to an inner tube and ultimately returned to his father in Cuba, to the displeasure of much of the South Florida Cuban community. And they showed up when President Barack Obama moved to restore full relations between the United States and Cuba, again angering many in the community there.
Last year, the restaurant was the backdrop for a Fox News town hall hosted by Sean Hannity that was attended by Republican Florida politicians, including Senator Marco Rubio, Representative Maria Salazar and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Versailles has also been a critical campaign stop for local and national politicians since 1977, only a few years after the restaurant opened, when Bob Graham, then a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, spent one day there working as a busboy as part of a pledge to work 100 jobs during his campaign. (He went on to win the governorship.)
Maurice Ferré, a Puerto Rican and the first Latino mayor of Miami, also frequented the restaurant. And presidential candidates like George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Donald J. Trump and Senator John McCain have dined there or ordered from its famous coffee window, more commonly known as a ventanita.
Diners there have also banged their spoons on pots and pans in celebration of the Florida Marlins’ 1997 World Series victory and the Miami Heat’s 2013 championship win.
Felipe Alberto Valls was born on March 8, 1933, to Felipe Luis Valls and Dolores Bravo in Santiago de Cuba. His parents sent him to the United States in 1947 to attend high school at the Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Ga.
After he graduated in 1950, he returned to Cuba, where he became an entrepreneur. He owned gas stations, a restaurant and the popular Lido Supper Club. He later opened a large manufacturing plant that supplied burlap bags for the cement industry, and bottles to liquor companies like Bacardi.
Mr. Valls’s businesses were expropriated when Castro rose to power. In 1960, when he was 27, Mr. Valls fled the country with his 4-year-old daughter, Leticia, his 2-year-old son, Felipe Jr., and his wife, Aminta Viso de Valls, who was seven months pregnant with their daughter Jeannette.
Soon after arriving in the United States, Mr. Valls got a job selling used restaurant equipment. He later persuaded the owner to lend him money to import espresso machines from Italy and Spain. Eventually he opened his own restaurant equipment company.
Miami’s symbolic ventanitas — walk-up windows that serve coffee, pastelitos and croquetas — were created by Mr. Valls after one of his clients, a supermarket, El Oso Blanco, asked him to help remodel its building, The Miami Herald recalled in an article. The clients wanted to sell their coffee through an open window in the front while keeping the store air-conditioned. Mr. Valls and a Miami window fabricator came up with a window that would slide open and closed over the counter.
His portfolio eventually encompassed about 30 restaurants, including La Carreta, now a chain of Cuban family-style restaurants throughout South Florida (there is one across the street from Versailles); La Palma, a Miami restaurant most famous for its lines for churros and hot chocolate when temperatures dip below 60 degrees in South Florida (it’s in the process of being sold); and several outposts at Miami International Airport.
The restaurants’ umbrella company, Valls Group, is run by his family.
In addition to his granddaughter Nicole, Mr. Valls is survived by his partner of more than 20 years, Natty Elias; two daughters, Leticia Valls and Jeannette Valls Edwards, and a son, Felipe Valls Jr., all of whom he had with his wife, Aminta Valls, who died; nine other grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
For many Cuban Americans in Miami, their memories of the death of Castro in 2016 will always be linked to Versailles. The night, as a crowd gathered there, Mr. Valls walked in smiling and smoking a cigar. He was pleased that the moment was being marked “at the place he built,” Nicole Valls said.
“That’s where the whole city came to celebrate.”