I start every trip to Miami at Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho. Versailles lives up to its name with its mirrored walls, court in eternal debate, and heavily bejeweled matrons . The front entrance opens onto a long red carpet leading to the two, raucous dining rooms. There may be music playing at Versailles, but it’s impossible to hear over the sounds of politics, silverware, and full-blast air conditioning. Recognition is key, and upon entering everyone immediately scans the room for familiar faces. A quick table stop or two before being seated can whether you’re given the real menu or the tourist menu in English.
I rarely have Cuban food outside of Miami. Deceptively simple, it’s easy to get wrong. Today, I arrived with a checklist of things I’ve been dreaming of from the moment I booked my flight – tortilla de platanos, croquetas de yucca, ropa vieja, flan de queso. Nevertheless, once there, I ordered to please my waitress. Versailles boasts the boldest wait staff in the Miami and possibly the world. They’re like a female army in tight green, polyester leisure suits trained by hypercritical, but well-meaning Cuban grandmothers. One raised eyebrow or sharp comment, will prompt you to cut down a croqueta order and cancel the fries, yet they seem genuinely disappointed if you don’t clean your plate and order dessert. I had a media noche since it’s hard to find a cuban sandwich made with the traditional pan de agua outside of Miami. It was heavy on the ham but still delicious. The fried plantains were also fantastic, perfectly sweet without being oily. For dessert, I had the brazo gitano, a rolled cake with dulce de leche filling and chocolate frosting. My cake was a little dry, and I was soon begging my sister to share her flan with me. Finally, even though it’s just a macchiato, it tastes so much better when you can call it a cortadito and have it on a warm December day.
When I was little, I made no distinction between the plastic baroque of Versailles and the palaces of books and Disney movies. Even as an adult, it never disappoints. Like going through the looking glass, it becomes as small or big as you need it to be on that day, at that moment. I’ll visit Versailles several times on my trip as I work my way down my list. With each meal, I settle into it’s rhythms and sounds till it’s time to go home again.