Upon entering the cramped atrium, I was assaulted by a precocious family of 23, an impatient hostess dolled up in condescension, and a meadow of hand painted Spanish tiles. Of course, I am referring to The Columbia, a homegrown culinary legend and the oldest established restaurant in Florida. Although my first impressions of this Ybor City beast weren’t positive, my experience only grew in satisfaction as I was immersed in decorative artwork and authentic Spanish cuisine.
The Columbia earned its claim to local stardom because it has been serving customers for over 110 years. Established in 1905 by Casimiro Hernandez, Sr, this restaurant has morphed, expanded, withered, and flourished throughout the dynamic history of Tampa. The building itself is infinite, the multiple dining rooms stealing a whole city block for themselves. After being herded into the atrium, the first dining hall, the Don Quixote room, was an oasis of darkly finished wood, chandeliers dripping light and age, and pressed napkins. The second story balcony cried of the elite, and I would love to ascend that faded staircase one day. This room was “the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa,” although I fancy this old-timey haven for another reason. The ideal and historical theme of Don Quixote permeates the restaurant, the fumbling, middle-aged knight and his loyal squire displayed in brightly colored tiles on every surface. Don Quixote represents the addictive power of dreaming, of hopes, and of success, a lofty ideal The Columbia has definitely achieved. In a particular mosaic, the central image of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and miniature windmills, is surrounded by foliage reminiscent of Mucha’s ornamental artwork.
The expensive food was served amidst crystal glasses, folded linen napkins, and complimentary loaves of individual bread and butter. I ordered a regular Cuban sandwich, not trusting my finicky palate with the more authentic Spanish dishes. However, seeing as I ordered cheese pizza when in Spain (instead of paella or ceviche), this came as no great surprise to my family. Placed messily on a mountain of fried plantains, shredded lettuce, and pickles/tomatoes, my Cuban was delicious and pressed to perfection. Although I despise mustard, it tastes angelic on a Cuban sandwich loaded with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, and authenticity.
The adjacent patio dining room was breathtaking, every inch of table and 1950s-walls covered in sunlight longing to break through its barrier of glass. A rounded, cream arcade enclosed the chatting diners, the ample vegetation and wooden balustrade reminding me inexplicably of In The Palm House on the Pfaueninsel near Potsdam (1833) by Karl Blechen. In addition to Spanish tiles heralding from Mexico, Cuba, and Spain, a large sculpture (1937), Love and the Dolphin, dominated the center of the airy patio. Interestingly, this sculpture is a replica of a work found in the smoldering ruins of Pompeii, the frozen city of Ancient Rome soiled with ash, brothels, and modern tourism.
Although I only peeked into a private dining room and the La Fonda bar area, The Columbia contains a wealth of other uniquely (and literarily) named halls. The Andalucía, Kings, Sancho, and the Familia de Casimiro rooms are all draped in velvet, mahogany, careful masonry, and priceless history. The sprawling Hernandez/Gonzmart clan has owned The Columbia throughout the 20th/21st centuries, each successive generation adding their personal flare to the family business. However, architecture aside, I must mention the wonderful food and outpouring of beverages. Large pitchers of Sangria were born left and right of my table, customers sucking up the delicious drink although it was only noontime. The waiter would create this Spanish staple in front of the diners, the fresh fruit, red wine, brandy, and soda mixing into a blood-red heaven before their eyes. The Columbia also boasts spicy Flamenco dancing every night (besides Sunday), but experiencing this local culture at 12 p.m. was good enough for me.
Boasting a Columbia Sentential Museum to showcase their multiple artworks, it’s no wonder I ran into one of my favorite Spanish paintings pasted onto the barroom’s wall (behind the piano and guitar set-up). A tile rendition of The Triumph of Bacchus (1628) claimed an unadorned portion of wall, its red-faced occupants and flowing spirits proclaiming the realist style of Diego Velázquez. Next to the mammoth-sized restaurant, a humble Columbia gift shop sells kitschy trinkets and fat Cuban cigars. I recommend skipping this small-time money maker and letting the ample artwork, sangria, and retro black and white family photographs sink in. Visit the Columbia website here.
Columbia Fun Facts (taken from their website)
- The exterior Spanish tiles originated in Seville, Spain and cost the entrepreneurial owner’s $160,000.
- Babe Ruth, Bruce Springsteen, Marilyn Monroe, and Steven Tyler have all dined at The Columbia.
- In addition to Ybor City, The Columbia has also expanded to Sarasota, St. Augustine, Clearwater, Orlando, and Tampa Bay.
- On September 20th, 2005, The Columbia sold its famous cuisine for 1905 prices (i.e. a round of beef was $2.95) to celebrate their 100 year anniversary.