• UF Travel Reporting

Columbia Restaurant: A Touch of Cuba and Spain in Tampa Bay

Updated: May 27, 2020

Are you ready for an immersive experience into Cuban and Spanish culture? If so, I suggest visiting Columbia Restaurant in the historic district of Ybor City.


By: Elisabell Velazquez

Columbia Restaurant is Florida’s oldest restaurant, and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world.


When referring to places where history and good food are all in one place, you cannot forget about Columbia Restaurant. Located at 2117 East 7th Ave. in Tampa, FL, Columbia Restaurant is the perfect combination of Spanish and Cuban culture all in one place. Not only is the food exceptional but the history of Ybor City, Spain and Cuba culminates the restaurant.


Worried about parking in the busy touristic city? No worries! Columbia Restaurant has parking lots around the area where it is located. Parking is free and the lots are surrounded by different businesses in the center of Ybor City.


The Columbia Restaurant combines the Spanish and Cuban cultures in the historic district of Ybor City.


History

When you first arrive at Columbia Restaurant, you feel as if you were traveling back in time to 1905, the year in which it was founded. The structure and decorations with all of its original furniture from that time transports you to the past. Columbia Restaurant was founded in 1905 by a Cuban immigrant named Casimiro Hernández, Sr., and its history is nothing short of impressive.


With five restaurants all dispersed around Florida in Tampa, Sarasota, St. Augustine, Clearwater Beach and Celebration as well as two cafes, one on the Riverwalk in Tampa and the other at the Tampa International Airport, the Columbia Restaurant located in Tampa's Historic Ybor City is the flagship restaurant.


Located in Ybor City, the history of the Columbia Restaurant correlates with the history of the district in which the flagship restaurant presides. The district of Ybor City is known for its Cuban, Italian and Spanish influence as it was founded in 1886 by Vicente Martinez Ybor, and cigar factories indundated the city. Eventually, the Columbia Restaurant was founded in 1905 by Casimiro Hernández, Sr. It all started as a small 60-seat corner cafe known for its coffee and Cuban bread. However, the small cafe took a turnaround during the Depression in 1935 when the son of the founder, Casimiro Hernández, Jr., built the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa. His vision of an elegant dining room with music and dancing became a reality as he created a dining room with an elevated dance floor. Eventually, the family continued operating the restaurant and expanding it to other locations.


The Don Quixote room in the first floor was the first dining room created in the Columbia Restaurant.

Richard Gonzmart is the current CEO of Columbia Restaurant. Alongside his sister and daughters, the Gonzmarts are part of the family that founded the restaurant. The history of the Columbia Restaurant remains in the hands of the same family that has worked together for 115 years since it first opened.



The Columbia Restaurant menu includes a wide range of dishes. Many of the meal names are in Spanish, adding a touch of culture to the menu as well.


Food

Cuban bread is a symbol of Ybor City's history as the Cuban Sandwich recipe was created in a local bakery in Ybor City over 100 years ago.

Your dining experience at Columbia Restaurant begins with a treat that immerses you into the Cuban culture, and that is Cuban bread! The Cuban bread served at Columbia Restaurant is something you cannot stop talking about. The bread by butter and a glass of water is the first thing that is put on the table when you sit down while you read the menu and prepare to order your food.


Chorizo "Española" is a tapas plate that contains Spanish pork sausage, onions sautéed in Spanish extra-virgin oil and is served with Cuban crackers to add a touch of the Cuban culture.


The Spanish culture is well-known for its cuisine and within its cuisine, tapas are the signature food item in Spain. Tapas are also known as appetizers. Eating tapas is a Spanish custom that revolves around the idea of socializing and eating small snacks. In Spain, eating tapas is seen as a way to have a pre-meal prior to eating lunch or dinner. Tapas are often sold in bars and lead up to a late dinner. The dish is supposed to serve as a temporary filler which means it can serve up to four people as everyone would take a few bites and then continue to the main dish.


An interesting detail about tapas is that they are all different. Some plates may have chorizo or Spanish pork sausage while others may have empanadas, croquettes, fried calamari, crab cakes and cheese platters. Tapas recipes vary but one thing they all have in common is the taste of Spanish culture in every bite.


The paella takes longer to make than other plates. The usual waiting time for the entree is 30 minutes.


Mouthwatering, flavorful and colorful! Those are three words that perfectly describe the Spanish paella at the Columbia Restaurant.


The original paella recipe at the Columbia Restaurant is known as the paella "a la Valenciana." The name represents the origin of the paella. Originated from Valencia in Spain, the Spanish paella combines seafood, chicken and pork. The paella brings the Spanish culture to life within its rice and it becomes a mission to not eat the paella before taking a picture of it. The colorful rice creates a very appealing dish but the taste is truly incomparable. The savory paella will leave you scraping the last rice off your plate!


The bread pudding is served with a strawberry and mint leaf for decoration.


The bread pudding at the Columbia Restaurant is as delicious as it looks! With a white chocolate drizzle and chocolate crumbs, the bread pudding is the perfect dessert to conclude your dining experience at Columbia Restaurant. Depending on how hungry you are and how much you crave, the serving size may vary. However, the pudding could easily serve up to four people as it is a large serving.


The white chocolate pudding is an original recipe at the Columbia Restaurant. The pudding is topped with Don Casimiro's Classic Silver Rum Sauce. Unlike any other dessert, the white chocolate pudding is a delicious sweet treat that you will forever crave.


Entertainment

The Columbia Restaurant Dance Troupe is led by Artistic Director Maria Sevilla. The troupe began performing at the Columbia Restaurant in 1985.


When you thought things could not get better, Columbia Restaurant also provides entertainment while you are eating. Clapping, dancing, elegant dresses, hair buns... you've guessed it! Flamenco illuminates the dining rooms at Columbia Restaurant. With only $8 per person, you can experience the unique flamenco performances that top off the exquisite culture of Spain within Columbia Restaurant.

Originated in Spain, flamenco is a unique combination of dance and music. With a precise choreography, the rhythmic dance steps bring life to the restaurant as the performers tap on a hard wood floor. The performance originated with the Spanish Gypsies and is historically known as one with ballet moves in colorful Spanish costumes in combination with the sound of castanets. The flamenco performances are a highlight of the Columbia Restaurant that you cannot miss. For a moment, everything becomes a dream in which you travel to Spain just by the sounds and view of a distinguishing performance. The sounds stay with you as you exit the restaurant and your hands begins to move as if you were to begin dancing. Meanwhile, you begin asking yourself "Wow! How did they do that?" The dancers do not miss a step and are all choreographed while multitasking their moves, and making sounds with the castanets and their shoes. Describing the performance and seeing the flamenco dance online truly does not do justice to the experience of viewing the flamenco performances live at the Columbia Restaurant.


Art & Architecture



The interior and exterior of the Columbia Restaurant combines the Mediterranean art and architecture of Spain.


The artwork in each dining room of the Columbia Restaurant resembles the influence of Spanish and Cuban culture. With 14 different rooms, each dining room is filled with different pieces of art from tiles to statues inspired by Spanish, Cuban, Italian and Mexican artists. The inspiration mainly derived from Don Quixote’s classic novels.


The architecture of the Columbia Restaurant is also unique. With pillars and ladders, the interior and exterior design of the restaurant resembles the Mediterranean art of Spain.


As you walk around the Columbia Restaurant, you can sense and imagine yourself roaming around Spain with the different cultural pieces of art in each dining room. When you speak of a place that has everything Spain, the Columbia Restaurant is exactly what you were thinking about!


Shop



You definitely cannot leave from Columbia Restaurant without taking a memory of the Spanish and Cuban culture to your home. The Columbia Restaurant has a beautiful store with unique pottery gifts. Whether you are buying a clock from Spain, typical ornaments from Spain and Cuba, wines, tobaccos or Spanish olive oil, the Columbia Restaurant Gift Store has all of the keepsakes you seek.


Afraid to dine in because of the coronavirus? No worries! Columbia Restaurant offers takeout.

You can choose to make a reservation, dine in without reservation or order to pick up.


Note: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some of the services provided by the Columbia Restaurant are limited or have been suspended. The live music and flamenco shows have been suspended due to COVID-19. The menu has been altered to provide for dine-in as well as take out. The location is easily navigable and to pick up orders, you will drive to the back of the restaurant. The process for dine-in continues being the same with the difference that there is an empty table in between each table to maintain social distancing.

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