Windows Into Miami

Words by
Jenny Starr Perez
Images by
Alfonso Duran

How the city’s walk-up coffee windows, or ventanitas, began as a business innovation and became a cultural institution.

One of the core memories Rudy Alvarez has of Miami in 1980—his first week in the United States after arriving from Cuba’s rural Pinar del Rio region—is a short stroll taken from his brother’s single-family home in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood to what many consider to be a monument to the city’s Cuban community. The monument in question, located on Calle Ocho, was not a statue or museum, but Versailles Restaurant and its famed walk-up coffee window better known as a ventanita.

The ventanita is a distinctly Miami invention, created in the late 1960s by Versailles’ founder, Felipe Valls Sr., as a way to merge Cuba’s coffee culture, which back then was built around outdoor stands, with the brave new world of air-conditioned interiors that was transforming America. While the first ventanita was lost to a fire in 1977, by then the deceptively simple innovation had already become a staple of Cuban businesses across the city. More than a simple delivery system for strong Cuban coffee, empanadas, and pastries, the ventanitas emerged as crucial nodes of connection for recent emigres, places to gather and gossip and celebrate a vital element of their new life—the reason they came to America in the first place.

“Si, la ventanita,” says Alvarez, who works as a janitor in a Corral Way office building, a smile stretching across his 74-year-old face. “In the café that day I had my first taste of freedom because everyone around me was talking about politics openly and without fear of any consequences.”

The ventanita is a distinctly Miami invention.

The ventanita at Versailles Restaurant.

Today there are over 1,000 ventanitas peppered throughout Miami, sliding windows built into restaurants that blur the line between multiple worlds—indoor and outdoor, Cuba and America—each with its distinct attitude, personality, and avid regulars. Collectively, they are an around-the-clock operation, a central artery to the city in the way the bodega is in New York and a testament to how thoroughly Cubans have revolutionized the way the city consumes coffee—and communes with one another. If you live in Miami, the ventanita is part of your morning routine, a mainstay of lunch, and often the last stop after a boozy evening. You have run into old friends here. You have made new ones. It is the place you are drawn to, as if magnetized, for a regular dose of Miami’s own kind of vitamin C: cafecito, croquettas, conversation.

To say that Miami has changed since the first tiny windows slid open in the 1960s is an understatement. In just the past decade alone, Miami’s downtown business district has been transformed by gleaming stalagmites of glass and metal, as if eager to compete with Manhattan’s skyline, with many of the towering condominiums now home to the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who fled south during the pandemic. According to the National Association of Realtors, over 330,000 people moved to Florida between 2020 and 2021, many to Miami. In their wake it can occasionally feel like the city has become a place where only the flashiest of businesses can thrive.

And yet the ventanitas remain and continue to proliferate, sly Davids to the Goliath of enormous change, icons of history and heritage in a town that is notoriously quick to shed its past. From the beginning they were an ingenious piece of business, creating a dual revenue stream for restaurants, with the indoor rooms serving more expensive fare while the cash line outside offers quicker, cheaper options—a model that has proven ironclad, thriving and seducing newcomers without having to change. La Carreta, another staple, now has nine locations across Miami-Dade County, with three of those including a signature take-out window. Among the pastel flash of South Beach, an epicenter of Black Cards and Bentleys, the window at Las Olas continues to do brisk business. What for an emigre like Rudy Alvarez were once reminders of why he left Cuba for America have today become a refuge for the city as a whole.

“People are always talking about change in Miami—rents getting higher, new people and business coming in all the time,” says Alvarez. “But the friendships you make over cafecito at the ventanitas? That’s forever.”