Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Columbia Restaurant

The historic original facade of the famous Columbia Restaurant

What a wonderful Saturday but I am feeling a bit guilty. How could I have gone this long? It feels wrong. Living in Tampa Bay, writing a food blog and not mentioning The Columbia Restaurant is utter dining heresy. While we do have plenty of good places to eat, we have very few “landmark” restaurants. We have almost no places with national recognition though, and we are simply not on the culinary map. There are just a couple of exceptions and in my mind The Columbia is at the top of the list. This nationally renowned and award winning establishment is at the heart of Tampa history and her story goes back to the roots of this young gulf coast city.

Not only do we need to talk about the food, but it's really important to know how intertwined The Columbia is to Tampa. Let’s look back, shall we? Although discovered by the western world in the early 1500’s, Tampa Bay was largely overlooked until the very late 1800’s. Settled then abandoned several times, it was remote with no overland passage, the handful of western settlers (well under 1000 until then) fought yellow fever regularly and the heat of summer was oppressive. It wasn’t until Henry B. Plant brought the railroad to Tampa after the discovery of phosphate that the area began to boon. With the railroad here, other businesses began to expand and the Tampa population grew exponentially. Notably, Vincente Martinez Ybor moved his entire cigar making operation from Key West to a small factory area annexed from the city of Tampa in 1885. With tobacco resources easily shipped over the Gulf of Mexico from Cuba and good rail lines into the US interior, Ybor City was a major economic center for Tampa.

While Ybor City has changed over the century, it remains a historic landmark with some of the old cigar factories still here. At night, it is Tampa’s party scene. Clubs and bars that line 7th Street are well renowned night spots and southwest Florida’s youth flock here from miles around. During the day, shops and galleries make the area a bit more artisan and family oriented. It’s a community that has something for everyone. Smack dab in the middle of the historic area sits The Columbia Restaurant. Opened in 1905 by Casimiro Hernandez Sr., it is the oldest operating restaurant in the area. It has remained owned and operated by the same family for over 100 years. Although nestled in the heart of the Cuban cigar making neighborhood, Hernandez served traditional Spanish cuisine and his business was brisk. Even with several economic blows to the Tampa Bay area over the years, I can find no evidence of troubled economic times for The Columbia.

So last weekend, I had a dilemma. Lisa needed some peace and quiet to work on a school project (yet another 40-something back in college) and I had a houseful of company slated to visit. My step dad, James, was flying in from DC on a business trip and it was my weekend to be with my son Evan. Plus, Olivia being around is never conducive to getting study done. So we needed to be out of the house. After getting James from the airport in the late morning, the Columbia idea came to me. I remembered reading that it was voted “Best Place to Take an Out of Town Visitor” by a local website. Off to Ybor City we went.

Now I hadn’t been to this place in quite some time; probably 15 years. Shame on me. I mean, it’s not horribly close but there’s just no excuse for a true foodie not to visit annually. The history surrounds you, captivates you even. While certainly expanded over the years, each of the 15 dining rooms remains largely original in their appearance enhancing the experience. Here are three of them:

Unoriginally named the Red Room

Don Quixote Room

Cafe Dining Room

We were seated in the Patio Dining Room which was added in 1937 and designed to resemble a typical patio in southern Spain.

Beutiful decor in the Patio Dining Room

Olivia and I

The attention to detail in the architecture is astounding. It immediately gets your attention with beautifully arranged mosaic tiles and a wrap around balcony with an ornate and period bannister. So does the lovely fountain in the center of the room. The ceiling is retractable with a sheer covering so natural light is always part of the dining experience.

We settled in, ordered a beer and casually perused the menu. The first thing that captured my attention was the prices. In this elaborate space with ample and justified opportunity to present over-inflated menu prices, the Columbia offers fantastically authentic Spanish fare at prices consistent with the original working-class, cigar making neighborhood that surrounds it. My 13 year old son, Evan, got a kick out of using the 3 or 4 words he knows in Spanish with our waiter, who was perfectly gracious.

Our waiter helping Evan order

As I usually do, I asked for a recommendation. The waiter suggested a Sea Bass that was new to the menu. He said it was getting rave reviews and has fast become the most popular dish. That’s all I needed to hear. Turns out James wanted the same. Evan ordered a club sandwich that 6 Evans couldn’t have finished and Olivia (sticking to her true, non adventurous self) wanted the chicken strips. For an appetizer, I had 4 jumbo char grilled shrimp and Evan had Empanadas. Now these shrimp were the biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen in a restaurant. These were representative of the gorgeous and hearty Gulf of Mexico shrimp that we don’t see served enough. Perfectly seasoned and drizzled with lime, it was served with a tangy sauce that was dubbed “1905” sauce presumably because it was 1st served by Mr. Hernandez in 1905.

The pic does not do the size of these monsters justice

I tasted Evan’s Empanadas. The crust on these Latin meat pies was absolutely perfect and the beef filling was seasoned to perfection with traditional South American spices. If you are interested in making Empanadas or just reading about them, I write about them here.

Once the fish came, I was again impressed. Spiced, seared then topped with beautifully cooked onions with oregano and olive oil, this fish was succulent. James and I agreed the waiter hit the mark with this recommendation. Accompanied with a traditional Spanish rice, this portion was absolutely perfect. Being only lunch, we needed to be able to continue to move so we decided to skip desert, although the Flan was calling. Another time.

Delicious Sea Bass topped with Onions, Oregano and Olive Oil

We continued to stay away from the house by going to a museum and the zoo but I couldn’t help but reflect on the snapshot in time that is The Columbia Restaurant. I just felt as though we could have been sitting there in the early part of the last century and it wouldn’t have looked any different. The casual and relaxed lunch crowd accompanied by stunning visual surroundings and excellent food is unparalleled. Any trip to Tampa really has to have a stop here and if you are from Tampa, you must go.

What a wonderful Saturday we had.

1 comment:

Faine said...

Thank you for the link! I miss eating at the Columbia..I love the empanadas but my mom swears by the chopped salad. Mm.