Felipe Valls Sr., founder of landmark Versailles Cuban restaurant in Miami, dies at 89

Where is the first place you take your Iowa cousin when they come to visit Miami — OK, maybe after South Beach?

Where’s the first place candidates and media cameras local and abroad go to during a campaign season to take the public’s political temperature? And for the last 51 years, where can you get a late-night snack after a show or a game when nothing short of a steaming plate of ropa vieja or a shot of rich black coffee over conversations in English, Spanish and every language in between will do?

Versailles Cuban Cuisine on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, naturally, where the person at the table next to you was once former presidents Bill Clinton who had dinner there, George W. Bush who popped over for breakfast, and Donald Trump who visited the bakery while on the campaign trail for a second-term run in 2020.

Power pop music couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z dined at Versailles. Local global superstars Gloria and Emilio Estefan run their own restaurants and music empire, but love what Versailles and its founder had to offer, too.

There would be no Versailles Cuban restaurant without its founder Felipe Valls Sr. He was the man with the vision that led to a culinary and social and cultural landmark in the Miami neighborhood that became known around the world.

Valls Sr., who lived in Coral Gables, died Saturday in Miami at 89 of natural causes, his family said.

Felipe Valls Sr., founder of Versailles Cuban restaurant, as well as more than 40 other restaurants, told the Miami Herald how he invented the concept of the walk-up Cuban coffee window in Miami, as he sipped a cafecito at his home in Coral Gables in this file photo from Sept. 4, 2020.
Felipe Valls Sr., founder of Versailles Cuban restaurant, as well as more than 40 other restaurants, told the Miami Herald how he invented the concept of the walk-up Cuban coffee window in Miami, as he sipped a cafecito at his home in Coral Gables in this file photo from Sept. 4, 2020.

Music producer and restaurateur Emilio Estefan Jr. recalls stories his father, Emilio Sr., would tell him about his childhood friend, Felipe Valls, back in Cuba when they were boys.

“They grew up together,” Estefan told the Miami Herald Saturday after hearing of his friend’s passing.

“Incredible people that came at the beginning of the exile and I am so proud, so proud, and I told him so, so many times. They worked hard and he was a great role model for a lot 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 they became an entity on everything that has to be about Cuba — the freedom of Cuba. He always took a lot of pride to support that,” Estefan said.

“You know something? The long run is, I think, the legacy you leave and I don’t think that he could have done better work,” Estefan said. “It’s an incredible loss. But it’s beautiful that when you leave you know that everybody felt so proud of you and that you were so loved by the community.”

Such a legacy.

READ MORE: The ‘world’s most famous Cuban restaurant’ celebrates 50 years in Miami

In the province 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 dealerships. In 1947, his parents had 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 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 on 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 shuttered restaurants to fix and resell.

By 1963, Valls sold used restaurant equipment. He imported espresso coffee machines and invented the ventanita, so cafeterias could continue to sell coffee and pastries to street clients before air conditioning became commonplace.

One of his regular clients had asked the savvy Valls to help him remodel their market that had an open-air facade. They wanted to close in the market to take advantage of two major newcomers to the community in the early-1960s: Cuban exiles and air conditioning.

‘Very best of a generation of Cuban exiles’

The owners also wanted Valls to find them something to feature inside the cool confines that they’d heard of but could not find in the U.S. — a commercial espresso machine.

“La ventanita was born out of necessity,” Valls told the Miami Herald earlier this year. And thus, Versailles, in 1971.

“Felipe Valls was a giant, a gentleman and exuded the very best of a generation of Cuban exiles who reshaped life and culture in Miami,” said former Miami Herald food editor and author Carlos Frias, now host for WLRN’s Sundial program.

“He founded more than 20 restaurants since he came from Cuba — and is arguably the most important restaurateur in Miami history. He was a literal tastemaker, making Cuban cuisine mainstream, if not ubiquitous in South Florida.

“He’s also responsible for inventing the concept of the ‘ventanita,’ the walk-up windows that are an indelible part of Miami culture. What do you call a man who created an icon, if not an icon himself,” Frias told the Herald.

READ MORE: The first ventanita: How Miami invented the windows that imported Cuban coffee culture

But before he was the icon behind an icon, Valls was making just enough money to put a down payment on a small tract of land on Eighth Street and 35th Avenue that he figured would be a good spot for his dream Cuban restaurant. He had previously purchased Badia’s restaurant in Little Havana and sold it to raise the capital for Versailles.

Friends and even family thought he was, well, misguided. The locale, they said, was too far west of downtown to attract steady customers. Valls was determined. His son, Felipe Valls Jr., then a teenager, was put to work as a busboy and waiter.

The pair, father and son, would go on to open dozens of restaurants since those early days, including La Carreta, Casa Juancho, Casa Cuba, La Palma, and his signature Versailles.

Felipe Valls Sr., founder of Versailles, with his son Felipe Valls Jr., and granddaughters, from left, Nicole, Luly and Desirée, in front of the restaurant located on Calle Ocho in Little Havana.
Felipe Valls Sr., founder of Versailles, with his son Felipe Valls Jr., and granddaughters, from left, Nicole, Luly and Desirée, in front of the restaurant located on Calle Ocho in Little Havana.

That small coffee stand that once was Versailles grew into a large restaurant with distinctive mirror work in the main hall designed by decorator Juan Pérez-Cruz — Pitbull’s uncle. With its attached bakery, Versailles would come to occupy an entire block.

“This is where you come to take the pulse of our community. ... Versailles is the Cuban exile that refuses to kneel down,” Valls told Miami New Times in 2014.

Today, the Valls Group has 2,000 employees and owns the 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 headed by its chief executive officer and its president, Felipe Jr., along with Valls’ daughter, Jeannette Valls Edwards and granddaughters.

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Survivors and services

Valls survivors include: his children Leticia, Jeannette and Felipe Jr.; 10 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and his partner Natty Elias. He was predeceased by his wife, Aminta Viso de Valls.

Visitation will be 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Dec. 7 and 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Dec. 8 at Caballero Rivero Funeral Home, 3344 SW Eighth St. A mass will be held at the Church of the Little Flower at a date and time to be determined. The Valls family requests donations in Felipe’s memory to the Jackson Memorial Foundation.

Felipe Valls Sr., the founder of Versailles Cuban restaurant, as well as more than 40 other restaurants, at his home in Coral Gables on Sept. 4, 2020.
Felipe Valls Sr., the founder of Versailles Cuban restaurant, as well as more than 40 other restaurants, at his home in Coral Gables on Sept. 4, 2020.