Heather Von Bargen
Tampa mayor, Bob Buckhorn, is sending 122 Cuban sandwiches and Original “1905” salads from Florida’s oldest restaurant, the Columbia Restaurant, to Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago. That’s what Mr. Buckhorn wagered if the Tampa Bay Lightning lost the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. Unfortunately for Lightning fans, they did. Fortunately for Mr. Emanuel, there’s no better restaurant to showcase the best of Tampa.
Established in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr. in Tampa’s historic Ybor City district, the Columbia remains owned and operated by the founding family, currently the fourth and fifth generations. The “Gem of Spanish Restaurants” has since expanded to seven locations statewide. Earning numerous awards ranging from the prestigious “Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRoNA) Award of Excellence” every year since 2005 to TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence, the Columbia satisfies both locals and tourists. I set out to learn their recipe for success.
On a recent visit for The Daily Meal, my husband Matt and I were given a tour of the sprawling restaurant by the General Manager, George Guito, who started working in the kitchen fifty-three years ago. The original sixty-seat corner café is now part of the bar area. In 1919 Mr. Hernandez Sr. acquired the building next door and expanded the dining space. In 1935 Casimiro Hernandez Jr. added Tampa’s first air-conditioned dining room and included an elevated dance floor. Honoring a long tradition of music and entertainment, a flamenco show is performed six nights a week.
While the restaurant encompasses a city block and seats 1,700 people, the fifteen unique dining rooms give it an intimate ambiance. Art from the family’s collection grace the walls, as do old pictures from early days, plaques commemorating employee’s years of service, and a copy of a search warrant from the Prohibition. Wine is stored throughout the restaurant, and the main glass-walled cellar is an impressive showpiece in the large “Don Quixote” room. As the winner of Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award of Excellence” every year since 2004, it shouldn’t be too surprising (but is still impressive) that the Columbia has more than 50,000 wine bottles available.
I interviewed Andrea Gonzmart Williams, who represents the fifth generation. She credited “the passion that has gone from generation to generation” as the primary ingredient in the Columbia’s success, especially her father Richard Gonzmart.
“He truly is … the most passionate person I know when it comes to the Columbia restaurant and our family heritage.” We saw that passion evident in the staff too. “They are our extended family,” she said. “So many of them have been with us twenty plus years. They’ve seen me grow up.”
We ate in the Patio Room, built in 1937 to resemble a Spanish courtyard. The light-filled area is elegant but comfortable, with a relaxing atmosphere. White tablecloths add a formal air but you wouldn’t feel terrible about spilling on them. Our Saturday lunch crowd was mostly locals. Although it was full, we had no problem conversing.
Tuxedoed servers provided friendly and attentive service with spot-on recommendations. Every meal begins with warm Cuban bread and whipped butter. Several signature dishes, mojitos, and sangria are prepared table side and enhance your experience. We started with the popular Sangria de Cava. Our waiter Matt, deftly mixed fresh oranges and limes with brandy, orange liquor, and a split of cava. The result is refreshing and memorable, (if you have only one pitcher)!
You could make a meal out of the many tapas offerings. We usually get the family recipe Albondigas (meatballs, $9) but the Coca de Langosta ($12.50) flatbread of sweet lobster with spicy chorizo, tomatoes, and Manchego cheese became our new favorite. The roasted baby pork ribs ($12) were pleasantly tangy from the accompanying mojo-marinated onions.
The lunch portion of the Paella “Española” ($22) was huge. My husband pronounced it “fantastic.” Served with Valencia rice of perfect consistency, it was packed with mussels, clams, chicken, scallops, calamari, onions, white asparagus, and peppers. I ordered the famed “1905” salad and Cuban sandwich ($12.50). The “1905” salad is tossed table side and makes a masterpiece of iceberg lettuce. Inspired by the immigrants of Ybor City it has ham, tomatoes, Romano and Swiss cheeses, olives, Worcestershire sauce, with garlic dressing. The hot pressed Cuban sandwich, “Mixto,” is another symbol of Tampa’s immigrant culture. Casimiro Hernandez Sr.’s 1915 recipe puts ham from the Spanish, salami from the Italians, mojo-marinated roast pork from the Cubans, with Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard from the Germans on fresh Cuban bread. Their version is the standard to which I compare any Cuban sandwich.
Our flaming dessert entertained the children nearby ($7.95). Prepared table side, a spongecake filled with Spanish cream and strawberries is soaked in Sherry, topped with meringue and strawberry syrup, then flambéed. It tastes as delicious as it sounds. As we lingered over coffee trying in vain to finish dessert, we chatted with the assistant manager and watched the staff interact with customers and each other respectfully and thoughtfully.
Start with passion, add flavorful dishes reflecting local tastes, and as Andrea Gonzmart Williams said, “Stay relevant…Stay true to who we are, to what we are… That’s the important thing.” It’s a 110 year old recipe for success.