This article is sponsored by Nestle
Tampa’s historic Ybor City neighborhood is a hotbed of restaurants and bars, but only one can rightly claim to be both the oldest restaurant in Tampa and in the state of Florida. The Columbia Restaurant is an Ybor City landmark, and it has maintained its popularity for over a century. It hit a rough patch in the 1950s and ’60s, when Ybor City struggled before taking its place as a popular Tampa stop for both locals and tourists. Michael Kilgore, the restaurant’s chief marketing officer, explains its enduring appeal as owner Richard Gonzmart continues his family’s rich tradition.
Ybor City is a well-known historic neighborhood in Tampa. How did The Columbia Restaurant get its start there?
Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. first managed and then owned the Saloon Columbia, which opened on Dec. 17, 1903. We date the restaurant to 1905 when he purchased a neighboring restaurant. Our first customers were the workers of Tampa’s Ybor City cigar-making industry. Ybor City began as Tampa’s cigar-making district. Even though that industry has mostly moved away, the heritage and the flavor continue. We still celebrate that heritage.
Why do you think The Columbia has been so enduring for over 100 years now?
For more than 110 years, The Columbia has provided great food at a great value. We also know we’re not just serving food. We’re also serving history and heritage. That makes everything taste better. Our goal is to make everyone feel welcome, as if we’re inviting them into our home, which in a sense, we are. We try to provide the newcomers with a sense of the legacy here. For the regulars, we try to remember what they like. People appreciate that.
What are the most popular menu items, and why are they so good?
The most popular items on the menu are the ‘1905’ salad, black beans and rice, Spanish bean soup, the original Cuban sandwich, chicken and yellow rice and much, much more. USA Today named our salad ‘one of the 10 great places to make a meal out of a salad,’ and we basically invented the Cuban sandwich when those pretenders in Miami were still living in a swamp. The Spanish bean soup is the original served by Casimiro Hernandez, Sr.
With such a long history, how do you keep things fresh with still maintaining the old traditions?
The owners and managers constantly taste dishes at every one of our restaurants. We occasionally tweak recipes, but we’ve been successful for 110 years. We don’t need to change too much. If we want to deviate too much from Columbia traditions, we just start another brand such as Ulele (opened in 2014) and Goody Goody (re-imagined for 2016).
You’ve expanded into other locations, but you still maintain your Ybor City flagship. What makes Tampa unique?
Well, the Columbia in Ybor City is the original, as well as the oldest restaurant in Florida and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. It’s living history. We can say Babe Ruth ate here. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe ate there. Here’s the search warrant we received during Prohibition. When we open other locations, we try to duplicate the look and feel of the original. Our next-oldest restaurant, in Sarasota, is 52 years old.
Barbara Nefer is a freelance writer covering all things Orlando Her work can be found on Examiner.com. “