Columbia Restaurant is famous — and for good reason. Originally opened by the Hernandez Gonzmart family in 1905 in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa, it has served authentic Spanish and Cuban cuisine at affordable prices for over a century. It has racked up quite a few impressive awards over the years, being named an All-American Icon by Nation’s Restaurant News (one of only 50 restaurants in the United States to be given this honor), and picked as “One of Florida’s Top Restaurants” by Florida Trend Magazine every year since 1967.
Recently, some of the Hotspots team decided to take a trip down to Columbia Restaurant for some old-fashioned cooking as only Columbia can prepare. Peter Clark, Hotspots’ publisher, and his husband Cleto, invited our sales executive Tom Christ and our newest Central Florida salesman, Joshua Veninga, to Columbia, and all of them enjoyed themselves immensely.
“I really love the live music,” Peter said. “It adds to the ambience. In some places the live music can be overwhelming, but here it was a good balance — we could appreciate the music and the harmonies from the singers, but we could also have conversations.” Columbia’s Ybor City location is also well-known for its flamenco dancing; check columbiarestaurant.com for schedules.
Peter considers Columbia to be one of his most favorite restaurants. When I asked what about Columbia appeals to him, Peter told me, “Not very many restaurants can transport a person to another time and place, but Columbia definitely does that for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Spain and I feel like when I eat at Columbia, the tastes and the smells transport me right back to Barcelona.”
“The food is exceptional and the waiters are friendly and fun. They’ve all been there a long time, and I can tell that everyone, from the waiters on up to the management, takes such pride in what they do and it’s really evident as soon as you walk in,” Tom Christ told me.
The Hotspots team started off with an order of tapas, which were selected by the waiter after he was asked which ones he liked. The tapas consisted of empanadas de picadillo ($9.50), chorizo Española ($9.50), albondigas ($9), croquetas de pollo ($9), and pollo al ajillo ($10), and were very tasty as well as filling. Peter was particularly impressed with the albondigas, while Tom was drawn to the garlic and pepper combination in the pollo al ajillo. Tom also liked the empanadas so much that he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to tackle dinner!
For dinner, Tom had the roast pork a la Cubana ($22), which he loved. “It’s the best roast pork I’ve ever had,” he said. He also admits to trying Cleto’s dish, the ropa vieja ($20), which is beef sauteed and simmered with onions, green peppers, and tomatoes, and served with platanos and white rice.
Joshua had the prime New York strip sirloin ($39), which is aged for 40 days, brushed with Columbia’s “World-Famous 1905 Dressing,” and cooked to perfection, with champiñones rellenos and roasted potatoes. I was told he enjoyed the meal very much and could barely finish the large 14 oz. steak!
Peter enjoyed the filet mignon ($33), served with fresh vegetables and a choice of yellow rice or potato. “It was seared to perfection and the flavors were just unbelievable. It melted in my mouth, and when that happens, that’s when you know you received a really choice cut of beef,” he told me. The gang was so full after tapas and main courses that they couldn’t order dessert, although Tom and Peter both let me know that they are looking forward to trying some of Columbia’s sweet after-dinner dishes on their next visit, which I was told would be very soon.
In addition to the original Ybor City location, Columbia has quite a few other locations as well, which is clearly a testament to its recognition among Floridians. There are Columbia Restaurants located in Sarasota, in St. Armands Circle; in St. Augustine on St. George Street; on Clearwater Beach’s Sand Key; in Celebration, close to Walt Disney World; on the Riverwalk in Tampa (this smaller location is billed as Columbia Café); and even in Terminal E at Tampa International Airport.
Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, Tampa is located on 2117 E. 7th Avenue. Hours of operation are Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. Columbia serves lunch and dinner 365 days a year. Reservations are recommended. To place a reservation, call (813) 248-4961 or visit columbiarestaurant.com and place your booking online.