If you ever visited Tampa while on vacation, odds are pretty good that you ventured through Ybor City at some point. Located just north and a little east of downtown, Ybor is Tampa's historical landmark neighborhood turned entertainment district, once home to a large concentration of cigar factories and now featuring myriad boutiques, eateries, and live music clubs (I have it on good authority that the vibe gets a little rowdy after dark). While doing my pre-move research on the Tampa culinary scene, I also discovered that one can find Columbia Restaurant (2117 E. 7th Avenue) there, which is billed as the oldest in Florida (open since 1905) and the world's largest Spanish restaurant (although I suspect there may be some places in Spain that might dispute this claim). Always a sucker for places with strong historical ties, I made a point of putting Columbia on our short list of local dining venues that needed to be experienced ASAP. ASAP ended up being a week ago Saturday when my lovely bride and I decided to see what all the hubbub was about.
Columbia began as a humble cafe serving food to Cuban and Italian immigrants working in the cigar factories and evolved into a national landmark of Spanish and Cuban cuisine. The current restaurant complex occupies a large spot on 7th Avenue between 21st and 22nd Streets and includes a gift shop, bar/lounge, several dining rooms, space for a flamenco dancing show, and several nearby parking lots. Since we had declined to spend extra to see the show, we were escorted to the Don Quixote Dining Room, which was built in 1935 as the city's first dining room to feature the then-newfangled refrigerated air (I can happily report that it still works today). Our table was a small 2-top situated in the middle of the boisterous room (which had a decor that wasn't quite kitsch, but close) surrounded by various large parties: a tour group of Lighthouse Ladies, bunches of teenagers having dinner before Prom, families celebrating anniversaries, etc. With this volume of diners (especially in an "institution" restaurant like this), I always get a little concerned about food quality suffering due to the high plate traffic leaving the kitchen; however, I wanted to give the owners the benefit of the doubt before writing Columbia off as a Spanish Disneyland.
The missus and I started out our meal with a pitcher of the house's sangria de Cava, made tableside by one of our two servers (more on that later) with Jaume Serra Cristalino Spanish sparkling wine, a mix of citrus juices, Torres Brandy, and Torres Orange Liqueur. Deceptively smooth, the sweet beverage went down easy and often, eventually forcing me to slam on the brakes mid-meal so as to avoid getting tipsy before the drive home. We needed some nosh to counteract the liquor and opted for the famous Columbia original 1905 salad, put together at the table (if you haven't figured out yet, they're big on tableside presentation here, equal parts showmen and food purveyors) to resemble a giant antipasto salad, with lettuce, tomato, olives, julienned ham, Swiss cheese, grated Romano, and the secret house garlic dressing. Even though the menu trumpets the fact that USA Today vouches for this dish (not always a good sign in my book), we both found it to be quite good as antipasto salads go, with all the vegetables crunchy/fresh and not overly-doused in dressing.
Almost every entree on the menu has some sort of backstory to it (indeed, you start to get the feeling that Columbia is to Tampa as Antoine's or Commander's Palace is to New Orleans; that is, a repository of local culinary history) and no opportunity is missed to namedrop high-profile patrons (Babe Ruth! Marilyn Monroe! Joe DiMaggio! - no Hemingway, though, odd since he seems to show up almost everywhere else in Florida and the Caribbean). I too fell prey to the star anecdotes, ordering the Marilyn and Joe "Salteado", a conglomeration of beef tenderloin tips, chicken breast pieces, shrimp, and roast pork sauteed with olive oil, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, diced potatoes, chorizo, garlic, and red wine, served with yellow rice (this dish was allegedly inspired by a tiff that the famous couple had while dining at Columbia in the early 1950s). It wasn't bad (see photo below), although I'm not sure I get the connection to the argument.
Mrs. Hackknife's Veal "La Reina Isabella" didn't have a highfalutin genesis and was possibly better for it. This dish consisted of pounded veal cutlets that were coated in Cuban bread crumbs, pan-toasted, and topped with a potent saffron butter sauce and lump blue crabmeat. Served with asparagus and what the house calls "good rice", the veal was both decadent (I got to eat the leftovers for lunch later that week) and very unique.
Last, but not least, was a dessert special of towering mango mousse cake (see photo below). I have to say I enjoyed this probably best of all, an another unusual creation that wasn't cloying, contrived, or seemingly connected to any well-known persona, a spectacular example of how refreshing tropical desserts can be (see Refinery, orange-rosemary creme brulee with candied grapefruit).
Given our experience at Columbia, I'd say that if you show up with reasonable expectations about the atmosphere (which is more fun dining than fine dining), service (friendly, yet a bit uneven - the two server concept works only if they communicate well and don't trample each other's toes), and food choices (when faced with the option of something unusual versus "Uncle Jimmy's Favorite Snapper", pick the former), you're going to do just fine. I would have no problem returning to dine here with friends from out-of-town to give them a taste of old Tampa. Who knows? We might even see George Clooney...