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Ybor City’s World Famous Columbia Restaurant
The Ultimate Dinner and a Show

by Nick Anis

The Columbia Restaurant

In 1905 Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. founded Florida’s oldest and largest Spanish restaurant which has been run by his family for the past 100 years. The Columbia Restaurant began in Tampa’s Ybor City (pronounced EE-bore) section as a modest corner café and was originally best known for its Cuban coffee, authentic Cuban sandwiches, and for being a frequent hangout of local cigar factory workers.  In 1919, Casimiro’s son, Casimiro, Jr. who sought to transform the Columbia Restaurant into an elegant dining room with music and dancing was invited by his father to take the helm.

Casimiro, Jr. was truly a visionary because in 1919 there were no such restaurants in all of the Southeastern United States. A few years later during one grim day at the height of the Great Depression, the Columbia only produced $12.42 in receipts. According to family historians, the dismayed Casimiro, Jr. schlepped down the street to the local hardware store and purchased a hammer and nails. Upon returning to the restaurant he gathered the entire restaurant staff, and waving that hammer and nails told them firmly, "Another $12-day," he warned, "and I nail up the dammed joint!" A short time later, better days for the Columbia followed – and when they did Casimiro, Jr. took another big risk by building the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa, complete with an elevated dance floor, which he named the Don Quixote Room.

The Columbia Courtyard and Fountain in Yorba City - Photo: Patti McConville
The Columbia Courtyard and Fountain in Yorba City
Photo: Patti McConville

Casimiro, Jr.’s daughter Adela was a strikingly beautiful concert pianist who trained at the Julliard School of Music and in 1946 Adela married Cesar Gonzmart, a concert violinist and a handsome showman. During the 1950’s and 1960’s as Tampa’s Ybor City section was again experiencing economic decline, and most of the area’s cigar factories (which numbered 200 at their peak) were closing, but the Columbia again remained opened. During this period some of the world’s greatest Latin music and dancing talent performed there – many of whom became friends of Adela and Cesar back while they were performing at supper clubs on tour.

The Columbia Restaurant not only survived these leans years it became stronger than ever (now with six locations; Ybor City, Tampa; St. Armands Circle, Sarasota; Historic District, St. Augustine; The Pier, St. Petersburg; Sand Key, Clearwater Beach; Downtown Celebration, Orlando) retaining its tradition of live performances of authentic classical Spanish and Flamenco music and dancing. It’s now operated by the fourth and fifth generation Hernandez and Gozmart family. At the helm are fourth generation family members who started working for the restaurant when they were 12, Casey Gonzmart (left), serves as the company’s chairman, and Richard Gozmart (right), who serves as the company’s president.

Throughout its 100 year history the Columbia has been frequented by well known athletes and entertainers from Babe Ruth to Ken Grifey, Jr. and Barry Larkin, from Liberace to Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Brian Johnson of ACDC, from Jack Dempsey to Rocky Marciano to Evander Holyfield, from Marilyn Monroe to Bo Derek; everyone enjoys the Columbia!

Casey Gonzmart (left), who serves as the company's chairman, and Richard Gozmart (right), who serves as the company's president - click to enlargeAll six Columbia Restaurants are run by the same family since the first restaurant was opened nearly a century ago. We visited the original Ybor City location, which was built in 1905 and located in a National Landmark Historic District. Over the years the Columbia in Ybor City has carefully undergone restoration and expansion including $4 million in renovations in 2002, which modernized and doubled the size of the kitchen, upgraded the air-conditioning and sound system, and added additional space. The restaurant now occupies one square block, has 15 dining rooms, and seats 1,700. Besides the Columbia Restaurant’s rich history, beautiful historic 100-year old building and décor, wonderful and authentic music and dancing, and great sound system, there is a century-year-old ornately hand-carved mirror behind the bar, and other museum quality pieces among them a 17th.-century Spanish tapestry, a 1935 Murano Venetian chandelier, and a very valuable antique Asian vase. But the greatest treasure at the Columbia is its menu, which really sets it apart from any Spanish restaurant in the USA you may visit. It’s no surprise that the Columbia Restaurant has won over a dozen epicurean awards for its fabulous Spanish gourmet specialties. The Spanish Bean Soup, Original "1905 Salad," Paella, Red Snapper "Alicante," Merluza "Russian Style," Pompano en Papillot, Roast Pork "A La Cubana," Arroz con Pollo, Filet Mignon "Columbia," and Café con Leche and Flan are just a sampling of the delicious and unique culinary delights that await you.

The Columbia has an extensive award-winning selection of wines from Spain, Chile, and California. For special libations try the signature "Sangre de Toro Sangria – a pitcher made tableside with Spain’s best-selling red wine and Torres brandy – only $16.95 and if you want to keep the colorful hand painted pitcher its only $19.95. There are also special Columbia Restaurant versions of Manhattans, margaritas, daiquiris, martinis, and even a Bloody Gazpacho – Absolut Peppar Vodka mixed with a spicy version of Gazpacho $6.50; and they also offer four lines of Columbia private label wines.

Ybor City is a 10 square block National Landmark Historic District comprised of cobblestone streets and brick buildings that are an architectural fusion with strong Latin influences. The area reeks with history, for example President Teddy Roosevelt stayed there during the Spanish American War as did Sr. Winston Churchill who was reporting on the war for the London Daily Graphic. There is some parking in Ybor City, and it can be fun to stroll around a bit, but you’ll probably want to opt for the convenience of Columbia Restaurant’s valet parking. As you enter one of the hosts will escort you through the beautiful restaurant to your table; if you want to act like a local you can enter though the side entrance. The main entrance takes you through a Patio Dining room built in 1937 by Casimiro, Jr. It resembles a courtyard like the ones found in Andalucia, in the south of Spain, it is surrounded by a balcony, with a colorful mosaic-tiled fountain with the "Love and the Dolphin" statue in the middle. The statue is a replica of a sculpture found in the ruins of Pompeii. A large retractable glass skylight was installed, giving the room a wonderful bright and sunny look during the day, and an enchanted glow at night. You can dine in this beautiful courtyard, on the wrap-around balcony, in one of the two dining rooms with stages where the performances are given, or one of the other 13 dining rooms.

 

The Columbia’s service, which has been overseen for decades by 56-year-old General Manager, George Guito, who has worked there for the past 42 years, is impeccable. George, who started as a dishwasher when he was 14, has worked there all his life, and each day he is the first person to arrive and the last one to leave. It’s no accident that the Columbia’s Spanish food is so authentic and flavorful. The cooks who work there come from all over the world from places like Spain, Cuba, Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Mexico, and many of the servers and their assistants have also been there for decades.

The Executive Chef John Flahrety and Sous chefs Jesus Falgado, Eylvin Sepuldeda, and Antonio S. Escobar, take painstaking steps to ensure all the family recipes are preserved and the Columbia’s traditions continue. You’ll notice there is quite a bit of attention to detail from carefully polished glasses and silverware, linen tablecloths and napkins, and chilled salad plates, to fresh water, quickly delivered and properly prepared beverages, piping hot freshly baked Cuban bread, and entrées, to tableside preparation with acrobatic procession of salads, flaming entrées and desserts. You’ll be treated to just enough service for you to feel papered, but at the same to for you not to feel pestered. It’s almost as if Columbia’s servers have a sixth sense about them to know when you want something and when you want to be left alone to enjoy your meal and the show.

Columbia's World-Famous and Trademarked 1905 Salad

The Original 1905 Salad is a killer dish! A large bowl of chilled crisp lettuce, with generous portions of julienne ham and natural Swiss cheese, sliced tomatoes, olives, grated Romano cheese, and the Columbia Restaurant’s world-famous garlic dressing (a century old recipe of fresh garlic, oregano, wine vinegar, and Spanish olive oil), are tossed at your table – and it’s only $7.50 or $3.95 if served with an entrée.

Columbia's Alicante Red Snapper another old family recipee

There are eight Mariscos (sea food) specialty dishes from original family recipes on the menu plus several mouth watering specials. If you like fresh seafood with a Spanish flavor, you have come to the right place. For example, the Red Snapper "Alicante" was created many years ago by the founder’s son, Casimiro Hernandez, Jr.  This dish features the King of Gulf Fish, Red Snapper, baked in a casserole with sweet Spanish onions, green peppers, a rich sauce, Spanish olive oil, fresh garlic, and sauterne wine, and topped with sliced roasted almonds. It is served with traditional yellow rice and garnished with fresh fried eggplant and shrimp supreme. According to the Casimiro family "if you enjoy fresh fish and would like to sample authentic Spanish flavor, we offer our highest recommendation." $18.95. 

If you like the Italian fresh seafood smorgasbord/stew dish Cioppino, which means "fish stew" in the Italian Genoese dialect (and is sometimes misspelled in English as "Chipino" which more closely resembles how it is pronounced), try the Columbia Restaurant’s Paella "A la Valenciana" dish (the national dish of Spain). Columbia’s version is prepared in a traditional paella pan, features clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, grouper, calamares, chicken and pork, baked with Valencia rice, extra virgin olive oil, green peppers, Spanish onions, ripe tomatoes, garlic, spices and splashed with white wine. Or try Columbia’s "Marinera" version of the Paella, which is seafood only and excludes the chicken and pork.

If you are not in the mood for seafood, don’t worry there are also several delicious Carnes (beef and pork), and Pollo (chicken) dishes, scrumptious black beans, traditional Spanish yellow rice, white rice, plantanos, and salads to die for including the signature dish, the Columbia’s Original "1905" Salad – which is even trademarked!

The Arroz con Pollo "Valencia" is another original 1905

The Arroz con Pollo "Valencia" is another original 1905 recipe which helped to make Columbia famous. This delicious dish consists of a juicy and tender bone in chicken baked in casserole with Spanish yellow rice, green peppers, Spanish onions, tomatoes, white wine and virgin olive oil.  It’s served fresh out of the oven topped with green peas and pimentos.

The Filet Mignon "Chacho"

The Filet Mignon "Chacho" is served in memory of the Hernandez family’s great uncle, Evelio, "Chacho" Hernandez, the youngest son of the Columbia’s founder. This dish consists of a choice center cut filet mignon with a rich sauce of bourbon, shallots, and mushrooms.  It’s brought to your table fresh off the grill, and then flambéed tableside with a full shot of the world’s finest bourbon, Booker Noe. This dish is accompanied with roasted potatoes and vegetables.

The Columbia Restaurant - FlanThe Columbia’s Postres (Desserts) which are all made on premises each day from scratch are also quite good. There are several of these tempting desserts to choose from including: Flan (Spanish caramel egg custard is made fresh daily and served with decorative saucing and fresh fruit and a sprig of mint garnish); Crema Catalana (a popular treat in Barcelona, Spain made with Spanish cream topped with crystallized caramel); Natilla "Espanola" - rich Spanish custard topped with cinnamon; Guava Cheesecake (traditional cheesecake with a Cuban twist); Dulce de leche Cheesecake (a rich caramel cheesecake with a flavorful swirl of amber caramel); Brazo Gitano "Cien Años" (100th.) anniversary version of the original recipe from Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., founder of the Columbia Restaurant - sponge cake soaked in syrup with Spanish Manzanilla Sherry filled with Spanish cream and strawberries, rolled and topped with meringue, served tableside with strawberry sauce and flambéed); Godiva Chocolate Cake (dark chocolate cake layered and topped with chocolate mousse, and drizzled with caramel sauce with seasonal berries); White Chocolate Bread Pudding (Said to be the father and grandfather Cesar’s favorite made with white chocolate and topped with Bacardi Rum Sauce); Key Lime Pie (a Florida favorite).  The Columbia Restaurant - Godiva Chocolate Cake

You can see the Columbia’s popular live Classical Flamenco and Spanish dance show by going to the early or late seating. The performance will start at about the same time you finish your meal and your coffee and dessert has been served. The modest $6 cover charge and is worth every penny. When we visited, our table was beside the stage, but actually ALL the seats in the room give you a good view of the show. 

Columbia's Flimango Dancers

The music, numerous costumes, and the passion of the dancers transport the audience to another part of the world. The Flamenco is one of Spain’s traditional dances consisting of rhythmic dance steps performed on a hard wood floor. Originating with the Spanish Gypsies, it has evolved though the years to the more structured dance we have become familiar with. The classical Spanish dances consist of ballet moves in colorful Spanish costumes accompanied by the sound of castanets. The troupe of female and male dancers performs two 45-minute shows nightly, except Sundays at the Ybor City location. The show is well choreographed, has good lighting, great costumes, and the dancers all work well together. Flamenco dancing, which compliments the cuisine of the Columbia Restaurant is amongst the world’s most difficult and strenuous, but these graceful and highly sincere performers make it seem effortless. There is also live jazz in the Cigar Bar featuring the Dick Rivers Band, who are also quite good and they perform Thursday through Saturday nights from 8:00pm until 12 midnight.

The Classical Flamenco and Spanish dance performances are the caliber of show you would expect to see in Las Vegas or Broadway, not in Ybor City in Tampa Florida. Actually, authentic classical Spanish and Flamenco music and dancing is not the usual kind of show you get to experience anywhere in the USA – so it’s really a great treat to see such a great show, in such a beautiful and historic place, while dining on some of the greatest food you’ll ever taste this side of the Atlantic.

The Columbia Restaurant
2025 East 7th Street
Ybor City, FL  33605

Phone: 813-248-4961
Fax: 813-247-5881
Web:  http://www.columbiarestaurant.com

  • Hours:
    • Monday - Thursday (11am - 10pm)
    • Friday - Saturday (11am - 11pm)
    • Sunday (12 noon - 9pm)
  • Open 365 days of the year.  Serving Lunch & Dinner daily.
  • Children's Menu  Available
  • Reservations Not Required by Highly Recommended
  • Call for Flamenco Show Details

Photos by: The Columbia Restaurant and Patti McConville

Other Columbia Restaurant Locations:
 
 
411 St. Armands Circle
Sarasota, FL 34236

Phone: 941-388-3987

98 St. George Street
St. Augustine, FL 32084

Phone: 904-824-3341

1241 Gulf Boulevard
Clearwater, FL 33767

Phone: 727-596-8400

649 Front Street
Celebration, FL 34747

Phone: 407-566-1505

800 2nd Avenue N.E.
St. Petersburg, FL 33701

Phone: 727-822-8000

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Nick Anis is a food, wine, and travel and technology writer with over 24 books in print published by McGraw-Hill, Random House, Bantam, Ziff-Davis, Tab, and others. Nick's articles have appeared in The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, West Coast Media, The Family Publications Group, The Weekly News, and Travel-Watch.  His beats include food, travel, snow and waters sports, entertainment, family recreation, consumer electronics, home improvement, and automotive.  He is responsible for the Restaurant Row Ethnic Dining Guide, co-published by the Long Beach Press Telegram.  Nick is an accomplished downhill skier, PADI certified SCUBA diver, and when he's not sitting on his butt goofing off, enjoys a variety of active recreation including tennis, riding motorcycles, ATVs, wave runners, snow machines, horses, skeet and trap shooting he's also taken a stab at riding camels, donkeys, elephants, ostriches, lamas, dolphins, Reindeer, bulls, mechanical bulls, and buffalo.  Nick is a member (A Secretary/Treasurer) of the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA), a member of the North American Snow Sports Journalist Association (NASJA), Computer Press Association, The Writer's Guild, and listed in Books in Print, Media Map, and Press Access.  You can reach Nick at Editor@Travel-Watch.com.

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