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The Homesick Restaurant is run by Cuban Refugees

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The Homesick Restaurant Run by Cuban Refugees

Fidel Castro loves to drive down the street in Havana to find Centro Vasco, a restaurant he calls Centro Vasco. In Little Havana, in Miami, there is another Centro Vasco, on Southwest Eighth—a street that starts east of the Blue Lagoon and runs straight to the bay. The exterior of Miami’s Centro Vasco is a hodgepodge of wind-scoured limestone chunks and flat tablets of Perma-stone set in arches and at angles, all topped with a scalloped red shingle roof. Out front are a gigantic round fountain, a fence made from a ship’s anchor chain, and a snarl of hibiscus bushes and lacy palm trees. This building has seen many lives in its past. It was once a speakeasy in its twenties. Then, for many years it was an Austrian restaurant known as The Garden. The Garden’s owners were nostalgic Austrians who in 1965 became so nostalgic they sold it to Juan Saizarbitoria, a Cuban refugee, and returned to Austria. Saizarbitoria hailed from the Basque region in Spain and had arrived in Cuba in his late thirties after sneaking onto a boat to hide in a barrel filled with sardines. At first, he claimed to be a famous jai-alai player. Then he was made a master chef at the jaii-alai club. He opened Centro Vasco in 1940 and it became one of the most well-known restaurants in Havana. In 1962, after Castro had closed the restaurant, Juan Saizarbitoria, an exile, moved to Miami to open Centro Vasco. It was also home to a few funeral homes.

The first Centro Vasco America was located in a small building near Miami. Saizarbitoria, after about a year, bought The Garden from their departing Austrians. He didn’t have enough money to redecorate, so he just hung a few paintings of his Basque homeland and of the Centro Vasco he’d left behind in Havana; otherwise, the walls remained covered with murals of the Black Forest and rustic Alpine scenes. The restaurant prospered: it became a home away from home for Miami’s Cubans in exile. There was soon enough money to spend so the restaurant added a room, expanded its parking lot, and replaced awnings. The walls were painted in a rich, buttery yellow. Until then, there might have been no other place in the world so layered with different people’s pinings—no other place where you could have had a Basque dinner in a restaurant from Havana in a Cuban neighborhood of a city in Florida in a dining room decorated with yodelling hikers and little deer.

Centro Vasco is a busy place these days. During a week I spent there recently, I would sometimes leaf back and forth through the reservation book, which was kept on a desk in the restaurant’s foyer. The pages were wrinkled and stained with ink. Los Hombres Empresa, luncheon for twelve. Beatriz Barron, bridal shower. Baby showers for the Velgaras and Torreses, as well as the Delgados. Carmen Bravo was invited to a birthday party and Mr. Gerardo Capo celebrated his anniversary. A paella party in support of a association of Cuban dentists. Manny Crespo, a candidate to be a judge, held a fund-raiser. Southern Bell, luncheon for 28 people. Someone had written near the reservation in large letters and underlined it. “no sangria.”The Granada Room hosted the Little Havana Kiwanis Club Cooking Contest. However, the Miss Cuba en el Exilio finals took place outside. For those who want caldo Gallego, the Cuban white-bean soup, dinner reservations were available. Lunches were provided for executives of Bacardi Rum as well as for an adventurous group for Pizza Hut executives. Albita was performing on Friday night and Saturday nights. Reservations can be made for hundreds of people. The Centauros are 1941 alumni from a Havana hospital. Daily reservations were made for a group that used to play canasta in Cuba.

Juan Saizarbitoria reads the book alongside me. This isn’t Juan from the sardine bar; he died four year ago at the tender age of eighty-two. This is one of his sons—Juan, Jr., who now runs the restaurant with his brother, Iñaki. The Saizarbitorias make a beautiful family. Juan Jr., a near-60-year-old, is pewter-haired, with a big nose and pink-cheeked. His forehead is as wide and broad as a billboard and he keeps his eyebrows up high, making him seem a little astonished. Iñaki, fifteen years younger, is rounder and darker, with an arching smile and small, bright eyes. Juan, Jr.,’s son, Juan III, is now an international fashion model and is nicknamed Sal. Juanito was Juanito’s sardine barrel Juanito. He is said to be Sal’s spitting image. Sal worked in the restaurant from time to time before he was a model. Old ladies who were once in love with Juanito would fall in love with Sal because he looked just like Juanito when he was younger. Everyone in the family talks a million miles a minute—the blood relatives, the spouses, the kids. Juan, Jr.,’s wife, Totty, who helps to manage the place, once left a message on my answering machine which sounded a lot like someone running a Mixmaster. She is a good friend to everyone, can talk to anyone, and has a lot to say about everything. Once, she told me she was so tired she could hardly speak, but I didn’t believe her. Juanito wasn’t known for being a talker. In fact, Juanito could only speak Basque and couldn’t understand Spanish. Jackie Gleason was his golf partner in Miami. He had nothing to share with him. Juanito is remembered as a tough, grave man but also very sentimental. He put a drawing of the Havana Centro Vasco on his Miami restaurant’s business card, and he built a twenty-foot-wide scale model of it, furnished with miniature tables and chairs. It still hangs above the bar at the Miami restaurant.

On Fridays, I go to the restaurant at a reasonable hour. The morning is hot and bright, but inside the restaurant it’s dark and still. The rooms are old-fashioned. They have iron chandeliers and large, high-backed chair with iron backs; amber table lamps and white sheets; and black cables running from amplifiers along a small stage. The wall is lined with photos of the numerous Presidential candidates who have visited Cuba to seek the Cuban vote.

The heavy restaurant door opens and lets out a slab of light. Two, three, then a dozen men stroll into the foyer—elegant old lions, with slick gray hair and movie-mogul glasses and shirtsleeves shooting out of navy-blue blazer sleeves. Juan comes over to greet them, and then they saunter into the far room and prop their elbows on the end of the bar that is across from Juanito’s model of the old Centro Vasco. They are Vedado Tennis Club members, one of five exclusive clubs in Havana. After the revolution, the government seized the clubs and declared that everyone in Cuba could use them. The club members fled Cuba as soon as the announcement was made. The Vedado members now meet at Centro Vasco for lunch every Friday. Meanwhile, back in Havana, the old Vedado clubhouse is out of business—a stately wreck on a palm-shaded street.

Members of Vedado order Scotch, Martinis and highballs. Three months ago, the bartender who served them had just left Cuba. They themselves left the Vedado behind in 1959, and they are as embittered as if they’d left it yesterday. The TV above the bar is set to CNN and the news about the lifting of the Cuban embargo flashes on the screen.

At the other end of the bar is a buoy-shaped man, his face droopy. The bartender informs me that he is Santiago Reyes, a former minister under the Batista regime.

Santiago Reyes smiles at me as I approach him. He then kisses me and says. “My sincere pleasure, my dear.”He leans forward onto a stool. Four men quickly surround him. Their faces turn and open like sunflowers. Santiago Reyes’s words pour forth. It’s Spanish, which I don’t understand, but I hear a familiar word here and there: “embargo,” “United States,” “Miami,” “Castro,” “yesterday,” “government,” “Cuba,” “Cuba,” “Cuba.”The Vedado members converse in a marbled voice throughout the room. They are probably thirty-five out of a total number of about 100, and there won’t be any more. There has never been anything in my life that I couldn’t go back to if I really wanted to. I want to know if Little Havana is any like the real Havana.

One gray head swivels. “Absolutely not at all,”He said. “Miami was a shock when we got here. It was like a big farm. Plants. Bushes. It was quite something to see.”

I declare that I would like to visit Havana.

“While you’re there, shoot Fidel for me,”The man smooths the lapels of the blazer.

I said that I thought I would be too busy.

He tilts his head and looks at me through his glasses. He then says, “Find the time.”

The tennis club eats filete de maero Centro Vasco. The food here is mostly Basque, not Cuban: porrusalda (Basque chicken-potato-and-leek soup), and rabo encendido (simmered oxtail), and callos a la Vasca (Basque tripe). Juanito created the menu for Havana and brought it to Miami. It has not changed. The only exception to this is the vegetarian paella Madonna’s cook made for her one night after she performed in Miami.

I walk into the second dining room. At one table, Dr. Salvador Lew, of radio station WRHC, is having lunch with a couple who have recently recorded a collection of Latin-American children’s music. They are talking and eating on the air—as Dr. Lew does with one or more different political or cultural guests every weekday. Followed by garlic bread, the microphone is passed around. You can feel hunger pangs from one to two each day at 1550 AM on radio dial.

Iñaki and Totty sit at a round table near Dr. Lew, having a lunch meeting with two Colombians. They are discussing how to market the restaurant to Colombians who are moving in large numbers to the area. More and more, the Cubans who left Havana after Castro’s arrival are now leaving Little Havana, with its pink doll houses guarded by plaster lions, and its old shoebox-shaped apartment buildings hemmed in by sagging cyclone fences—Little Havana, which is nothing like big Havana. The wealthy Cubans are now moving to Coral Gables’ pretty streets along Ponce de Leon Boulevard. This area looks very similar to Miramar, or Kendall, close to the largest Miami malls. Or to Key Biscayne’s breezy, golf-course homes. Centro Vasco, which had been an amble from their front doors, and a home away from home, is now a fifteen-minute drive on a six-lane freeway—a home away from home away from home.

Totty and Iñaki think a lot about how to keep Centro Vasco going in the present. Inaki and Totty plan to open a Little Havana attraction park behind the restaurant. This would include cigar and rum concessions, a map of Cuba made of Cuban soil, as well as a mural that lists the names and addresses of American companies interested in doing business in Cuba. Totty and Iñaki have already added more live music on weekends in order to draw young people who were probably sick of hearing their parents talk about old Havana, and who otherwise might not want to spend time somewhere so sentimental and old-fashioned, so much part of another generation. Popular singers like Malena Burke and Albita Burke draw them in. And even that has its ironies, because the music that Malena Burke and Albita perform here and have made so popular with young Cuban-Americans is son and guajira and bolero—the sentimental, old-fashioned music of the pre-revolutionary Cuban countryside. Totty and Iñaki have also come up with the idea that Centro Vasco ought to have a special Colombian day. As I sit down at their table, they and the Colombians are talking about something that ends with Iñaki saying, “Barbra Streisand, O.K., she has a great, great, great voice, but she doesn’t dance! She just stands there!”

Colombians are a friendly bunch.

“Anyway,”Totty: “for the special Colombian day we’ll have a Colombian menu, we’ll decorate, it’ll be so wonderful.”

One of the Colombians clears their throats. He is as golden as toast, and has the kind muscles you can bounce coins off. Totty is his name. “The perfect thing would be to do it on Cartagena Independence Day. We’ll do a satellite feed of the finals from the Miss Colombia beauty pageant.”He lifts his fork, and pushes the clam on his plate. “I think this will be very, very, very important to the community.”

“Perfect,”Totty.

“We’ll decorate,” Iñaki says.

Totty said, “We’ll make it so it will be just like home.”

Everyone knew that I was going to Havana. Ever since I arrived in Miami, this place was hanging over me. I was shocked that this place could remain in my memory for so long and make people hungry, murderous, or cry.

“If you go, then you should go to the restaurant and look at the murals,” Iñaki said. “If they’re still there. There’s one of a little boy dressed up in a Basque costume. White shirt, black beret, little lace-up shoes. If it’s still there. Who knows? Anyway, the little Basque boy was me.”

Juan giggled when I mentioned that I was going. I asked what it had been like on the day Castro’s people took the restaurant away, and he said, “I was working that day, and two guys came in. With briefcases. They said they were running the restaurant now. They wanted the keys to the safe, and then they gave me a receipt for the cash and said they’d call me. They didn’t call.”

Was he surprised?

“About them taking the restaurant? No. Not really. It was like dying. You know it’s going to happen to you eventually—you just don’t know exactly what day.”

One night at dinner, I tried to persuade Jauretsi, Juan’s youngest daughter, to go with me, and she said, “It would be a scandal, the daughter of Centro Vasco going to Cuba. Seriously, a scandal. No way.”I was having zarzuela di mariscos, a rich seafood stew, while I was accompanied by Jauretsi (Toty), Sara Ruiz (a friend of mine from Cuba who fled Cuba fifteen years ago). Juan came over to our table while we were seated guests. The tables were full, and the waiters, all gray-haired and black-vested, were speeding backward through the kitchen with their large trays. Five guys at the table beside us were eating paella and talking on cellular phones; a father was celebrating his son’s having passed the bar exam; a thirtyish man was murmuring to his date. In the next room, the Capos’ anniversary party was under way. There was a cake in the foyer depicting the anniversary couple in frosting—a huge sheet cake, as flat as a flounder except for the sugary mounds of the woman’s bust and the man’s frosting cigar. The next generation were the guests, whose fathers had been to the Bay of Pigs but had never visited Cuba. They wore trendy haircuts and carried handbags made of black with gold chains. The young men swarmed together in the hall, getting party favors—fat cigars, rolled by a silent man whose hands were mottled and tobacco-stained.

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