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|Amber Brooks • 12/11/17|
The Short Version: Since 1905, the Columbia Restaurant has served Spanish and Cuban-inspired dishes and drinks that represent a long-standing family history. Founded by a Cuban immigrant in Tampa, the Columbia remains a local favorite because of its traditional foods and personable service. Over the years, people from all over the world have come to the glamorous restaurant to celebrate engagements, anniversaries, birthdays, and other monumental moments. Today, the fourth and fifth generations of the family owns and operates 13 different restaurants throughout Florida. If you’re looking for fine dining with a good old-fashioned family feel, you can reserve a table in the stunning and romantic dining rooms of the Columbia Restaurant.
For the past 30 years, my family’s favorite vacation destination has been an oceanfront hotel in Sand Key, Florida. We’ve gone there over a dozen times to build sand castles, spot dolphins, and eat delicious meals on patios overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
We have thoroughly explored the town’s restaurant selection, searching out the best local joints around, but it just so happens that the one restaurant we all enjoy most is within walking distance of our hotel. The Columbia Restaurant’s white linen tablecloths, attentive service, and mouth-watering food make it our go-to spot for dinner.
When we were kids, my parents would order us a cheese pizza while they visited this romantic Spanish restaurant alone; however, we now enjoy tapas and wine just as much as they do, so we’ve started crashing their date night — sometimes bringing along dates of our own.
Since 1905, the Columbia Restaurant has wowed patrons with Spanish and Cuban dishes and an old-world ambiance. Although it’s the oldest restaurant in Florida, the business is still run by the descendants of the original founder. Every item on the menu has a story behind it, and many of the recipes have been passed from one generation of the Hernandez Gonzmart family to the next. Family tradition is a huge part of the Columbia’s menu, history, and approach to service.
“The staff is also a bit like family,” said Michael Kilgore, the Chief Marketing Officer for the Columbia. “Many of our employees stay for 20 or 30 years. One of the things we love about our group is how long they stay with us. They come here and find a home.”
You can enjoy this comfortable and welcoming atmosphere on your next date night by going to any one of the Columbia’s seven different restaurants. The Columbia Restaurant currently serves guests in Tampa, Sarasota, St. Augustine, Clearwater Beach, and Celebration. Whether you’re sipping wine on a picturesque balcony or watching flamenco dancers light up the stage while you eat tapas, you’re sure to have a memorable evening at the Columbia.
The Columbia Restaurant can trace its history back to Dec. 17, 1903 — the same day the Wright brothers successfully tested the world’s first airplane. That was when a Cuban immigrant named Casimiro Hernandez Sr. began running a saloon for a local brewing company in Tampa’s Ybor City.
In 1905, the industrious entrepreneur turned the saloon into a popular 60-seat cafe known for its authentic Cuban coffee and sandwiches. Following his success, Casimiro bought a restaurant next door and converted it into a gorgeous dining room. In 1930, his son took over ownership and operation of the thriving restaurant.
During the Great Depression, his son Casimiro Jr. built the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa. He hoped its upscale look and elevated dance floor would draw people to the restaurant and help them forget their worries for a night. The Don Quixote Room was a hit, and the Columbia was able to keep its doors open while many other businesses folded.
In 1953, Casimiro Jr. passed the Columbia on to his only child, Adela Hernandez Gonzmart, an accomplished musician who had met her husband, Cesar Gonzmart, at the Tampa restaurant. This theatrical pair brought entertainment and artistry to the Columbia, establishing a showroom that hosted many talented Latin dancers and musicians. Under Adela and Cesar’s leadership, the Columbia expanded to Sarasota and other locations in Florida.
Today, one of Adela and Cesar’s two sons has taken the reins and kept his family’s business going. Richard Gonzmart has been working at his family’s restaurants since he was 12 years old, so he is intimately familiar with its atmosphere and history. Richard can actually point to the table at the Columbia Restaurant where he and his wife had their first date more than 43 years ago.
“There’s a lot of romance here, and we have a great story,” said Michael. “Less than 15 restaurants in the United States are family-owned and more than 100 years old, so we’re in pretty elite company.”
Florida’s oldest restaurant has a proud and enduring history rooted in food, family, and fun. Michael told us the fifth generation of the founding family is currently being groomed to take over one day. Richard’s daughters and nephew have taken on active management roles at the restaurants and are ready to keep the family tradition going for many more years to come.
The Columbia has been recognized with some of the highest awards in the restaurant industry, including induction into Nation’s Restaurant News’ “Fine Dining Hall of Fame,” earned the “Distinguished Restaurants of North America (SiRoNA) Award of Excellence,” Florida Trend’s “Golden Spoon Hall of Fame,” and Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award of Excellence.”
The Columbia Restaurant sets a lavish table and provides a delightful escape from everyday life. It seduces your senses from the moment you walk in the doors. You’re surrounded by greenery, water fountains, and artwork as the sounds of laughter and the smells of fresh seafood dishes waft through the air. Before my order even gets to me, my mouth is always watering with anticipation. Luckily, each guest gets his or her own freshly made loaf of Cuban bread, so I have something to satisfy my taste buds while I wait.
The 14-page menu is full of good food but also provides easy conversation starters for daters just getting to know one another. Each entrée, appetizer, and dessert comes with an enticing description as well as interesting background information. For instance, the restaurant’s coconut ice cream was a favorite of ice cream entrepreneur Gustavo Hernandez, the third son of the original Columbia founder, and today this sweet dish is served in his honor.
From the vegetarian paella (Spanish rice mixed with hearty vegetables) to the shrimp supreme (shrimp wrapped in wafer-thin bacon), the foods at the Columbia are bursting with flavor. The shareable plates, called tapas, make this restaurant ideal for couples on a date because you can come closer together by sharing small plates of empanadas, sliced chorizo, croquetas, or stuffed peppers. You can easily make a budget-friendly meal by ordering a few of these appetizers together — just remember to save room for dessert!
The Très Amigos churros would be an excellent choice for couples because they’re tactile, sweet, and just a little messy. You can dip the piping-hot churros in chocolate, caramel, or guava sauce so there’s a little something for everyone. Plus, Columbia’s signature White Chocolate Bread Pudding is an indulgent dessert perfect for splitting with a date who has a taste for white chocolate and rum sauce.
In 2017, the Marriott Traveler blog named the Columbia Restaurant among St. Augustine’s top date-night spots, encouraging couples to “start with Columbia’s famous 1905 Salad, assembled table-side with much panache, and then share a massive platter of the Paella a la Valenciana, overflowing with shellfish, aromatic rice, and chorizo.”
Your romantic night will be all the more enjoyable if you pair with your meal a glass of the Melanie Chardonnay, a rich wine named after Melanie Gonzmart, Richard’s high-school sweetheart and wife.
Plus, at the Columbia Restaurant, the sangria is to die for. Seriously, it comes by the glass but you can also split a pitcher of white or red sangria with a date to enhance your dining experience. Generously large slices of fruit float in the wine and infuse it with rich flavors. Whether you’re ordering this classic sangria or one of the restaurant’s family wines, the high-caliber drinks do not disappoint.
Michael told us the team makes an effort to offer affordable yet quality wines to whet guests’ appetites. “Our wine selection should be perfectly suited for the food we serve and your price point,” he said.
When I think of the Columbia, I think of the night we decided to have dessert for dinner, and my parents ordered churros, key lime pie, mango mousse cake, white chocolate bread pudding, and five spoons. I think of my twin brother trying grouper for the first time on our 20th birthday and saying excitedly, “Take my picture” because he wanted to show his girlfriend (who’s now his wife) that he enjoyed eating fish as much as she did.
In so many ways, the Columbia feels like our place, but my family isn’t the only family to have made memories at this restaurant and its six sister locations across Florida. People come to the restaurant at all stages of life because it provides a special atmosphere that pairs well with any celebration.
Famously, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were frequent guests of the Columbia in the early 1950s. The Columbia staff paid tribute to the couple and the loving memories they shared at the restaurant by naming a dish after them. The Marilyn & Joe “Salteado” — a sautéed mixture of tenderloin tips, boneless chicken breast, shrimp, and pork — is a delicious reminder of the long history of romance in the Columbia’s dining rooms.
Whether you’re going on a first date or celebrating a wedding anniversary, you’ll find intimacy and passion flourish in the soft candlelight of the Columbia Restaurant.
“It’s one of our goals,” Michael said, “to have people feel as if the Columbia is the place to come to celebrate life’s milestones.”
The Columbia Restaurant charms daters with authentic dishes, divine atmospheres, and personable service. The servers, at least at our Columbia in Sand Key, pay attention to their guests and are quick to say “Welcome back” to loyal customers who, like my family, find themselves returning to the classy dining rooms again and again.
This long-standing dining establishment has grown and changed throughout the decades, but it has never forgotten its century-long family roots. Richard has ambitious plans to serve diners and daters throughout Florida in the years to come. “Our owner doesn’t sleep,” Michael said with a laugh. “He’s always dreaming up something new.”
The Columbia team plans to open at least two new restaurants in the coming years. One will be conveniently located right across the street from the original Columbia in Tampa. Casa Santo Stefano, set to open in fall 2018, will pay homage to a small village in Sicily where a majority of Tampa’s Sicilian immigrants came from — the authentic menu aims to bring these families a delicious reminder of home.
Enduring leadership and quality flavors make the Columbia Restaurant and all its sister restaurants truly remarkable places where singles and couples can spend an evening in the company of those they love best.