The Columbia: The Oldest Restaurant in Florida

Lisa Fritscher June 25, 2014 No Comments

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The Columbia Tampa

The Tampa location is a full city block and heavily decorated with mosaic tiles.

All families have their traditions, from special holiday treats to favorite celebratory locales. I grew up in Lakeland, Florida, roughly halfway between Orlando and Tampa. When I was a kid, truly special occasions were celebrated at the Columbia in Tampa. Now Dad and I travel most of the time, but we’re based out of Clermont, Florida, half an hour from Walt Disney World. The Columbia branch in Celebration, the town that Disney built, has become our new favorite tradition.

History of the Columbia
The history of the Columbia reflects the history of Ybor City, the Tampa neighborhood where it all began. The first “company town” in Florida, Ybor City was built to support the cigar industry. Vicente Martinez Ybor was a successful cigar manufacturer in Cuba who escaped to Key West, Florida, in 1868 to avoid the Cuban Revolution. By the 1880s, high costs and logistical issues had him looking for a new location. Tampa, then a small town near a valuable port and railroad line, proved ideal. In 1885, he closed a land deal and immediately began laying out the gridded streets of his company town, which was named Ybor City.

By 1905, Ybor City had become the cigar capital of the world. Business was thriving, the town was prosperous, and the residents had money to burn. That year, Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. opened a 60-seat café to serve the local cigar workers. His Cuban sandwiches and coffee were a hit. In 1919, he bought the restaurant next door, effectively doubling the Columbia’s size.

Patio Room

Added in 1937, the Patio Room is still breathtaking today.

When Casmiro Sr. passed away in 1930, his son, Casmiro Jr., took control of the business. He envisioned an elegant supper club-style establishment complete with music and dancing—something the region had never seen before. Although the Depression was in full swing, Casmiro Jr. took a chance. He created the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa and added an elevated dance floor. The new Don Quixote room proved successful, and the restaurant’s business continued to grow. The Patio room, complete with hand-made, hand-painted mosaic tiles and a retractable skylight, was added in 1937.

After World War II, the cigar industry took a sharp downturn, and by the 1950s the once-thriving Ybor City had become run down. Now under the leadership of daughter Adela and her husband, concert violinist Cesar Gonzmart, the restaurant managed to survive on its reputation. But Cesar realized the importance of revitalizing Ybor City. In 1956, he built the Siboney room, a showcase for top Latin performing artists. He also expanded, adding a restaurant in nearby Sarasota, Florida, in 1959.

The Columbia Today

Tableside Preparation

Who doesn’t want a salad prepared tableside by a server in a tuxedo?

Today, Cesar’s sons Casey and Richard are at the helm. The evening entertainment continues in the form of flamenco dancers, who perform at the Tampa location every night but Sunday. The original Columbia has grown to a mind-boggling 52,000 square feet—an entire city block divided into 15 dining rooms and a 5,000 square foot kitchen. Across the state, seven smaller but no less opulent locations provide a similar experience at the same high level of quality.

Prices are moderate, particularly at lunch. If you are on a budget, the sandwiches, salads and soups are hearty and filling, and represent an excellent value. Another delicious budget choice is the extensive tapas menu.

Tips for Parents
As I mentioned above, the Columbia has been an important part of my life since I was a child. I have frequented both the Tampa and Celebration locations, and have also dined at the St. Augustine restaurant. Despite the opulent surroundings, the restaurants feel comfortable and homey rather than pretentious. Casual clothing is acceptable, although most diners choose business casual or “cruise casual,” such as khaki pants or simple dresses. Elegant clothing is not out of place, although it is typically in the minority.

The experience is a lot of fun for kids. Tableside preparation of such items as the 1905 salad, the flamenco show at the Tampa restaurant, and simply watching the other diners keep children engaged. Because the Columbia is both elegant and family-friendly, this is a great place to work with your kids on their restaurant manners in a forgiving environment. The children’s menu includes both traditional fare such as the Cuban sandwich and typical kids’ foods such as macaroni and cheese.

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avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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