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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 enjoys driving down the street to Centro Vasco in Havana on his way back from work every day. 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. There have been a few previous lives for the building. In the 20s it was a speakeasy. It was then a restaurant in Austria called The Garden for many years. The Garden’s original owners were Austrians with a nostalgic past. In 1965 they sold the restaurant to Juan Saizarbitoria from Cuba. They then 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. He pretended to be a world-famous jai alai player when he arrived in Havana. Later, he became a chef at the jaialai 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 has become a lively place. 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 at the Velgaras, Torreses and Delgados. Carmen Bravo was invited to a birthday party and Mrs. Gerardo capo received an anniversary party. A paella party in support of a association of Cuban dentists. Manny Crespo, a candidate to be a judge, held a fund-raising event. Southern Bell, luncheon for 28 people. Someone had written near the reservation in large letters and underlined it. “no sangria.”The Granada Room was the venue for the Little Havana Kiwanis Club’s cooking contest. However, the finals of Miss Cuba en el Exilio were held on the patio. People who wanted caldo Gallego (white-bean soup) were able to make reservations for dinner. Lunches were available for executives of Bacardi Rum and for an adventurous group from Wisconsin. There was also a reservation system for hundreds of people who want to see Albita on Friday and Saturday night. Reservations could be made for Centauros, who are 1941 graduates of a Havana medical school. A daily reservation was made for a group that used to play canasta in Cuba, and moved their game to Miami.

Juan Saizarbitoria reads the book alongside me. This is not Juan of the Sardine Barrel; he passed away four years ago at the 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., who is close to sixty, has a pewter hairstyle, big-nosed, pink-cheeked, and his forehead is as large as a billboard. He also holds his eyebrows high, which makes him look a little surprised. 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 used to work at the restaurant before he became 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 seems to know everyone and can speak to all. Once, she told me she was so tired she could hardly speak, but I didn’t believe her. Juanito was not a great talker. He spoke Basque and could barely communicate in Spanish. And he didn’t even know English. Jackie Gleason was his golf partner in Miami. He had nothing to share with him. Juanito was a hard-working, but also extremely sentimental man. 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.

I arrive at the restaurant before 9 o’clock on Fridays. The morning is hot and bright, but inside the restaurant it’s dark and still. The rooms have a vintage feel: they have iron chandeliers, large, high-backed chairs and amber table lamps. There are also white linen and black cables that run from amplifiers to 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. The government took control of the clubs immediately after the revolution and declared that all Cuban citizens could now use them. Club members also fled the country. Vedado members are now able to meet up for lunch at Centro Vasco every first Friday of each month. 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. They were served by a bartender from Cuba who arrived three months ago. They themselves left the Vedado behind in 1959, and they are as embittered as if they’d left it yesterday. A TV is placed over the bar and it’s tuned to CNN. News about the lifting of Cuban embargo flashes blue.

The bar’s other end is occupied by a buoy-shaped, droopy-faced man. According to the bartender, Santiago Reyes is a Batista minister.

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. He is quickly surrounded by four men, their faces turning and opening 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 talk in marbled voices across the room. Out of the few hundred people present, there are only thirty-five. There will never be more. There has never been anything in my life that I couldn’t go back to if I really wanted to. I wonder if Little Havana can be compared to 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 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 had the idea for the menu in Havana. He brought it with him to Miami. It has not changed much. Madonna was served a vegetarian paella one night by Juanito, who prepared it for her after she had performed in Miami.

I enter the other dining area. 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 coming to the area in large numbers. 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 Cubans who are wealthy have moved to Coral Gables and Kendall, close to the biggest Miami malls. They also move to Key Biscayne, where they live in 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 smile.

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

One of the Colombians clears its throat. He is as golden as toast, and has the kind muscles you can bounce coins off. Totty says he said so. “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 raises his fork to push a clam onto 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.”

I had to tell everyone that I wanted 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 laughed when i said 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.”

Did he feel shocked?

“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 Jauretsi, Totty and Sara Ruiz, a good friend who fled Cuba fifteen years back, were with me. Juan stopped by our table between serving guests. The tables were already 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 of guests were from Cuba, their fathers having been to the Bay of Pigs. They had never even visited Cuba. These women wore fashionable haircuts and carried black quilted handbags with brightly colored 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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