Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, Florida

Florida’s oldest restaurant, the Columbia Restaurant combines Spanish and Cuban food, with art and entertainment, to make a fun-filled meal any day of the week. It’s also the largest Spanish restaurant in the world with 1,700 seats encompassing an entire city block.

Location: The Columbia Restaurant is located at 2117 East 7th Avenue, in the historic district of Ybor City, Tampa, Florida.

Menu: The menu incorporates a wide variety of traditional Spanish and Cuban food. From the Spanish side, there are sharable tapas (appetizers) including various types of croquettes, empanadas, and large shrimp in different preparations. For entrées, you’ll find several versions of traditional Spanish Paella. From Cuba, there’s the famous Cuban sandwich and black bean soup. Finally, for dessert, there’s Spanish flan, Cuban mango-mousse cake, or Florida’s famous key lime pie. In each countries’ style, you can choose from several kinds of seafood, meat, and chicken dishes.

Thoughts: Servers outfitted in black tuxedo’s and bow ties lend an air of formality to the tableside service. Two dishes prepared tableside are the Sangria and Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad®. Watching the server prepare these dishes adds to the flair of yesteryear.

While the servers are formally dressed, casual attire for diners is fine; however, no sleeveless shirts on men are allowed.

There’s so much more to this restaurant than excellent food and tableside service. Columbia restaurant also provides entertainment and art. Several times each evening, Monday through Saturday, Flamenco dancers take the stage. The dance originated with the Spanish Gypsies. Flamenco dance is a series of rhythmic dance steps performed on a hardwood floor. The classical Spanish dance consists of colorful Spanish costumes complemented by the distinct clicking of castanets. Call ahead for flamenco show reservations. There’s a $6 per person cover charge.

Tuesday through Saturday evenings, you can also enjoy live jazz in the Columbia Café dining room with the Dick Rivers Band.

Art, in the form of traditional tiles, decorates both the restaurant’s interior and exterior. When third-generation owners Cesar and Adela Gonzmart spent time in Seville, Spain, they fell in love with the region’s colorful tiles. Their love for this Spanish art resulted in Cesar spending $160,000 in 1978 to cover most of the restaurant’s exterior with this beautiful tile.

Some of my favorite dishes include:

  • The empanadas picadillo. The empanadas begin with the picadillo, a mixture of spiced ground beef, tomato, onions, raisins, and pimento stuffed green olives. The picadillo mixture stuffed inside a delicate turnover pastry and fried creates the empanada. The result is a well-balanced, crispy tapa.
  • The Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad® made tableside. Crisp iceberg lettuce, julienned baked ham and natural Swiss cheese, Florida tomatoes, and Romano cheese combined with the garlic dressing. The Cubans originally used the garlic dressing to marinate fresh pork before roasting.
  • The Cuban sandwich, originally known as the “Mixto,” represents Tampa’s rich cultural mix. The sandwich recipe is Casimiro Hernandez Senior’s original 1915 recipe. There’s the Cuban Mojo marinated roast pork, Spanish ham, and the Sicilian Genoa salami. The Germans and Jews contributed the Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickle. The Columbia Restaurant sandwiches all of this between fresh baked Tampa Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Bakery. The butter-brushed bread pressed until crispy, the cheese melts, and the meats warmed.
  • El Combo de Cuba is a sampler plater of Cuban food featuring the restaurants most popular dishes. For lunch with a salad, there is plenty of food on this plate for two people. It includes an Empanada de Picadillo, roast pork a la Cubana, Boliche Carillo, yucca, plantains, black beans, and yellow rice. They roast the pork a la Cubana in a flavorful garlic marinade. The Boliche Carillo is a roast eye round of beef, stuffed with Spanish chorizo and roasted in a flavorful gravy.
  • The flan, a Spanish caramel egg custard, prepared as their great-grandmother Carmen Hernandez did in 1935. Also in that year, Tampa’s first “conditioned air” dining room, Don Quixote, opened at the Columbia Restaurant.

Price Range: Tapas range from $7.50 for black bean cakes to $15 for the Calamares Fritos “Romana” (fried calamari) or the Mussels y Chorizo “Andres” (mussels and sautéed chorizo.) Entrée salads and sandwiches range from $6.95 for the smaller version of the Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad® to $15.95 for the Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad® with shrimp. Entrées range from $9.50 for tortilla Gallega to $26 for pompano. The entrees include warm Cuban bread. Desserts range from $6 for a serving of house-made flan to $9 for white chocolate bread pudding. With taxes and tip, lunch for one is easily under $20.

For Pinterest: Pin this to your favorite Spanish or Cuban restaurant board.

Sample a taste of Cuba in this combination plate.

 

Amy Piper

Amy Piper is a freelance food and travel writer. She writes about food and multi-generational travel on her blog Follow the Piper. You can follow her on Twitter @amythepiper.

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