Dining Adventure in Ybor City, FL
This neon sign wasn't around in 1905, but the Columbia Cafe was!
Columbia, in St. Augustine, Florida
There are seven Columbia Restaurants, still owned and run by the original family.
We had a great time, even when we found out the restaurant was built in the 1980's. We vowed we would someday dine at the original location.
Last January, Don and I planned a visit, while in the Tampa area. We arrived before noon, to avoid a wait. The building took up an entire block.
Cuban immigrant, Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. opened a corner cafe in 1905. Workers from the nearby cigar factories, came for Cuban coffee, bean soup and Cuban sandwiches.
The humble cafe expanded over the years and now looks like a Spanish palace, with balconies, painted tile and carved doors. It is said to be the oldest restaurant in Florida and the largest Spanish style restaurant in the world. I'll take their word for it.
The beautiful tile work was evidently added much later, in the 1970's. Cesar and Adela (third generation) acquired the tiles in Seville, Spain. Some of the tiles had painted images, like the wonderful Don Quixote and windmill scene. One tiled area, was covered with a painted family tree. Six generations of Hernandez-Gonzmarts were named on the tree.
Don Quixote Dining Room
Once inside, Don and I were happy to see that we had beat the crowds. We were able to be seated in the Don Quixote Room.
Casamiro Jr. added this room in 1935, along with an elevated dance floor. This became the first dining room in Tampa to have air conditioning.
Besides a lot of Don Quixote themed decor, there was a crazy huge chandelier and a mighty fine stairway to the second level.
Menus and Cuban Bread
Our menus and bread came right away. We were each given our own big old hunk of hot Cuban bread, wrapped in paper! I buttered a piece and pulled out my handy Ford Treasury Cookbook. A nifty cookbook can enhance the dining adventure... or not.
Tony and the Book
Tony was very good humored. He offered to pose with me and the book... and Don Quixote in the background. That part was his idea!
I was relieved that Tony was properly amused by the vintage cookbook, which featured Columbia Restaurant in 1950. Servers under the age of 40 are often hard to impress, with kooky memorabilia.
I asked if they still served the steak recipe, (with chicken livers) like they did 69 years ago. I wasn't surprised that they didn't. Tony had very expressive eyebrows, though. He lifted them dramatically, when he noticed the book's illustration.
"That's the Patio Room and the fountain! It looks like the picture on our dessert menu!"
Half and Half!
I ordered the perfect combo, with a half Cuban sandwich and a small Columbia's Original 1905 Salad. The salad was tossed at the table with Swiss and Romano cheese, slivers of ham, Spanish olives and chunks of tomato, in a dressing with garlic and Worcestershire!
My "Smashed Cuban" (as some call it) was layered with ham, salami, pork loin, Swiss, pickle and mustard. The buttered sandwich was toasted in a hot press, before serving.
Don ordered a traditional dish from the Ybor District. His quarter baked chicken was served on yellow rice with peppers, onions, peas, tomatoes and spices. It was mouth-watering-smooth! I'm glad Don's always up for sharing.
The food was wonderful, but the activity around us was just as entertaining. There was a steady stream of casually dressed guests coming to dine.
Were any of those men, the 4th generation owners? They talked with each other and nodded and gestured... as proper as secret service men. Mostly, they added an intriguing, formal feel, that helped me pretend we were in the 1950's.. back in the day of the cookbook.
After a bit, I just had to take my cookbook into the Patio Room to compare the illustration. In the center of the space, I spotted the curiously odd, Love and Dolphins sculpture from the illustration... with the bare feet in the air!
Over by the wall, I noticed a couple more, dapper-looking gentlemen "on duty". I decided to head over and let my cookbook start a conversation. Suddenly both were studying the pages of the vintage book and laughing. "Where did you find this?" "How old is this?" The man with the purple tie was so delighted that he offered to give Don and me a tour.
Our gracious host introduced himself as Cesar. He asked if we had about 30 minutes, because there was so much to show us. If we'd been at a resort somewhere, I would have thought he was trying to sell us a timeshare.
But Cesar was just genuinely excited to share some history. He started by looking again at the illustration in our 70- year old cookbook. Then he took us to the upper level of El Patio.
The book's brief description mentioned a sliding glass roof, on the patio. Cesar mentioned something about his dad's involvement with the sliding roof construction.
He told us the courtyard had been added in 1937, but the unpredictable weather led to the addition of a retractable roof. He talked briefly about the sculpture and how it was made in Italy, to replicate a statue found in the ruins of Pompeii. That was interesting, but it didn't tell me anything about why that dolphin was wrapped around that upside down body!
The place was a confusing maze, with numerous stairways and halls. We were told there is a total of 15 dining rooms, which can seat more than 1,700.
The upstairs was quieter, with most of the private rooms, not in use. We moved from room to room and I wished that I had a notebook to take notes of all I learned.
There was so much to remember. I think this room was used as a casino at one time. I believe it was called the Siboney Room. It opened around 1955, with tapestries and glossy painted tiles. The stained glass was over 300 years old. I loved the little faces!
Stairs and Tiles
We came down another set of stairs. The marble railing and colorful tile work was stunning. Every piece of the building had a story. Marble from Italy... tiles from Cuba.
Business was hopping by the time we got back downstairs, but Cesar ushered us on through. A couple of servers jumped out of our way, to let us pass into the bar area. Did they think we were celebs or high rollers, getting a special tour? Not the way we were dressed.
I wish I'd gotten a better picture of the bar, which was a beauty. Cesar pointed out the original brass foot rail and reminded us that it had been a standing bar, only. No stools and no women... back in the day. He laughed about those days long ago, when Ybor City was in the middle of swamp land.
"Leaving late in the dark of night, workers had to worry about alligators..."
Hard to imagine!
And More Tile!
I could have studied the patterns all day. I have no idea how many different designs can be spotted throughout the restaurant.
Just on the bar floor, there were numerous styles. Cesar pointed out how worn the tiles looked in the heavy traffic areas.
I'm a big fan of interesting doors and there were so many. I didn't get the stories behind these, but I loved comparing them.
Without diners, it was easier to picture a different era, when people once dressed up in suits and pearls to dine. It made me want to return at night, to see if the crowds looked different.
As we wound our way back to the kitchen, we headed down hallways, with photo displays. This image showed the original and much smaller, kitchen. It's now another dining room.
I was thrilled to see the new kitchen, with all its good smells and cheery activity. We didn't just peek in the door. Cesar guided us right on in and gave us a tour, while the kitchen bustled around us. He even introduced us to a few, who had stopped to greet him.
Again, I was confused as to how we earned this tour. I never spoke of a blog... I just showed my cookbook. I kept thinking of the movie, "Waiting For Guffman" and hoping Cesar wouldn't suddenly realize we were NOT the important people he expected that day.
Much to See
We wandered around, dodging a few servers with food. The cooks and staff seemed very efficient as they worked. I noticed a few playful interactions. We surprised one exiting worker when Cesar opened the door of the walk-in freezer. "Well hello!" She laughed, as we almost collided.
No one seemed a bit bothered that we were intruding. I started to feel comfortable enough that I was tempted to grab myself a little flan dessert... or more bread!I
History in the Hall
Cesar pointed to one of the men in the photo and said it was his father, who had been a concert violinist.
The handsome young man in the ruffles was Cesar Gonzmart. I had seen his name in the family tree, but I was a little confused. So our gracious guide Cesar, was the son of the Cesar (in ruffles) who married Adela (the granddaughter of Casimiro Senior). I so hope I'm getting this right, but I believe the elder Cesar and Adela, first traveled with their music, before taking over the restaurant in the fifties. Family businesses are complicated.
Off We Go
We eventually ended up near the front door and Cesar shook our hands and thanked us so much for coming. Our tour had been much longer than 30 minutes and we had enjoyed every minute.
The Family Tree
I took a photo of the family tree before we headed to the car and I studied it as we headed out of town.
Maybe Don and I will need to return for another visit. This time we can dress up and drink Sangria and take in one of the evening Flamenco shows... and ask a few more questions!
The Florida House Inn, in Fernandina Beach
History of the Inn
This rambling inn, is in the heart of the historic district. It was built by David Yulee, as a boarding house for railroad workers, in 1857.
Yulee had a dream to build a railroad, but the Civil War changed things. The building ended up housing Union soldiers and the railroad didn't get built.
Mermaid Bar... And Famous Guests
When we came upon the inn, there weren't any diners on the porch. We headed inside and passed through the Mermaid Bar.
Ulysses S. Grant was another of the inn's famous guests. I guess the comedy duo never bumped into Grant, since the general died before the actors were born. But there's another famous inn guest, who did lived during Grant's time. Henry Ford was a generation younger, but they could have crossed paths and shared a drink! Possible, but unlikely.
Don and I were seated in the Southern Dining Room. We could see a few mermaids through a window in the wall.
HUGE Mahi Sandwich!
Maybe it's just as well that we weren't seated with others. I'm not sure they would have wanted to see Don tackle his monster sandwich! He loved it! I loved his jalapeno coleslaw. Luckily he had a ton to share.
The Back Porch
After eating, Don and I wandered out back and found the porches that possibly inspired the restaurant's name.
This was a little piece of heaven on a Sunday afternoon, in January! There were families lingering over meals, near the fountain and up on the porch near the tree. What a tree! I loved the way the centuries old oak, was leaning into the inn. They looked like old friends, whispering secrets about all the crazy past and present guests!
Must Come Back!
Don and I set off happy. Not only did we have a nice and comfy meal, in a charming southern town. We were able to add one more historic hotel to our list. I hope to someday have The Florida House Inn , written up in my 90-Notable Nights blog!
Country Cooking on the Old Dixie Highway
Seven years ago while on a Florida road trip, Don and I pulled off the Old Dixie Highway to check out this little beauty. We'd already eaten that morning, but bought coffee and looked around. We quickly added Cypress Inn Restaurant (and its Country Cooking) to the "Must Return" list!
Big Lot in a Small Town
When we arrived at Cross City's iconic restaurant, we joined other vehicles in the large, unpaved lot. On that January day, it looked like every Dixie County police officer, sheriff and firefighter had already arrived.
Cross City is an odd title, for a town with fewer than 2,000 residents. But maybe the town earned its city status by importance, not size. It is the county seat of Dixie County, after all.
The sweet little side entrance delighted me. I loved the odd texture of the red painted cypress. The door windows were decorated with homey curtains and a sign. We read and chuckled, "Please Come Again" as we headed in.
90 Years Old
At the Counter
We passed through the side dining room and into the front area, with counter seating. A few young women were cleaning up after the rush. They took turns fussing over one woman's 2 month old baby. All were chatty and welcoming. I was delighted to be introduced to the baby.
The old restaurant hasn't changed much since it opened 90 years ago, but I noted a few differences from 7 years ago. My old photo shows a juke box and upper shelves, filled antiques and a quilt. The display of dishes, even looked different back then.
The display was more colorful on this visit. I asked if the dishes were the restaurant's original plates and cups. I guess that was stupid question. The bright china matched the unstained potholders. I was told, "Oh no. Those are dishes from the Pioneer Woman collection." It took me a minute to realize we were talking about the blogger-turned-TV-personality-pioneer-woman.
The Cypress Inn got its name because of the "Pecky Cypress" paneling that covers the walls and ceiling. The Dixie County area is home to many lumber yards and sawmills and this special cypress is one of their unusual products.
At first glance the brown and white wood made me think of a stage set or a cartoon drawing. There was something fake looking about the weathered appearance of the wood. But the dips and holes in the wood were created naturally, by the growth of pecky fungus.
Words of Wisdom
Where to Sit?
There were open stools at the counter, but Don and I headed into the side dining room, where the folks in uniform were dining. I asked the cashier, if the tables were original. They looked mighty old. "Well..." She pondered a bit. "My dad owned the restaurant from the time I was about 6 to 16. They've been here as long as I can remember."
More Helpful Folks
Don and I looked over the menu first. Then I popped up to have a peek at the buffet in the front room. The fellow in the overalls was pretty clear. "There's nothing here that's not great! I've been in town working for 2 days and this is the second time I've eaten here. It's all good!"
All the locals were doing the buffet, but it was just more food than I was up for. I headed back to the table and paused to look at a photo of Cypress Inn, when it was more than a restaurant.
I studied the old photo from when Cross City was mostly a company town for Shamrock Lumber Co. It was odd to imagine our little restaurant having a service station and hotel rooms at one time. A police officer on his way to the buffet, paused to chat. "If you like old buildings, you should look at the Putnam Hotel across the road!" He was incredibly enthused about recent renovations of the old hotel... which also has pecky cypress wood!
Time to Eat!
I ordered the BLT and could barely see the bread underneath my mountain of bacon. "Oh we do bacon well!" Our server said with a proud grin. "We're a southern restaurant and we're going to feed you well!"
The menu itself looked retro, with old fashioned prices... skillet image... opening hours of 5 am... and the words... "Southern Hospitality Dixie Country Style"
Don and I will go a for a bigger feast next time, but we were both in a sandwich mood. Don was pleased with his good old fashioned cheeseburger and fries!
I didn't take a photo of the dining room this time. I felt a little restrained with all the people dining in uniform. But here is a photo from a few years back, showing the brown wood walls and beams... and a couple of deer heads, hidden in the shadows.
U-Turn For Breakfast!
Last January, Don and I left our hotel in St. Pete Beach and headed north. We were planning to grab coffee and eat granola bars in the car, but the sight of this diner made me giddy. I grinned as we drove by, then told Don to turn around. He did... happily.
I have fond memories of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, from when I was a kid. We crossed the original 2-lane bridge for the first time in 1968, when a hurricane was brewing in the gulf. It was creepy and thrilling, even without knowing the bridge would collapse about 10 years later.
The crowded parking lot was a good sign. Would it be filled with children? What kid wouldn't beg Mommy or Daddy to pull over to the restaurant, with Humpty Dumpty and a piggy bench. The motorcycle on the pole might have excited some older kids.
There were cartoon images, too. I wasn't quite sure what to think about the ethnically diverse pig officers... eating bacon. Yikes.
I posed next to the chicken and painted windows. Since 1976? Really? It seemed a whole lot older than that.
Crowded at the Counter
The place was hopping on a drizzly morning. Almost every stool was taken at the counter.
The tables near the windows didn't open up, till a little later. The corner looked pretty darn cozy, below the sheer curtains and shelves of piggy knickknacks. I forced myself not to laugh.
Table With a View
Actually our table had a fine view. We could keep an eye on all the men, dining at the counter and the servers, rushing about. It felt like we'd stepped back in time, when I noticed a few men reading newspapers. I didn't see a single person staring at a cell phone.
Coffee and Christmas
Amy brought us our coffee in Christmas mugs. We studied our menus and peeked around at some of the decor.
So Many Pigs
When Amy came back for our order, I just had to ask. "Has anyone ever counted, to know how many pigs are in this place?" She shook her head and laughed. "A lot!"
She said there used to be a lot more pigs than now. "The new owner took over 4 years ago. He's been gradually taking some of the stuff down." Then she added, "He's from New York." As if that explained it.
That would be, two 8-ounce steaks, 4 eggs, potatoes, sausage, gravy, baked apples and 2 biscuits!
Wash Up Time
It's always nice to wash up before you hit the road. Some of our most iconic diners have had the most memorable restrooms. I headed for the sows and Don headed for the boars.
Off We Go
We headed off down the road feeling pretty pleased with our stop. I couldn't help sharing the experience with a quick Instagram post. It wasn't long, before I got 2 comments. Who would have guessed that I would know 2 people who have been to Skyway Jack's. Yay, for the friendly staff and crazy pigs and chickens at breakfast!
Road Trip Stop in Florida
Last month, Don and I headed to South Carolina. I was frustrated when I saw the exits for Tallahassee, off I-10. We didn't have time to drive in and see the places I remember, from when my family lived there in the '70's. But we spotted this farm-style restaurant from the freeway. We made time for quick lunch.
Farm to Table
The farm to table term is used pretty loosely these days. But this restaurant was sitting on 4 acres, surrounded by gardens and chickens and a bayou behind. Even in January, the raised plots had some growth!
We passed the Nursery and headed down the enclosed porch that wrapped around to the back. I loved the colorful red tractor painting. The empty waiting benches made me realize the huge parking lot probably gets very full at times.
The porch off the rear had lots of windows and a barn-like feel.
I liked the swamp view, which might look different in warmer months. The utensil display on burlap was clever.
Main Dining Area
The main dining room had a modern, homey feel, with some fun farm accents. The pine floors and bright veggie & dairy art, was pleasing to the eye. Best of all the place smelled good, which means a lot. Before Backroads Crossing opened, locals used to gather here at Stinky Fish Camp.
Down Home Price
The Dining Blog
This is a blog about Dining Adventures. Sometimes, I talk about food. Below, you can read how this started.
On July 4th 2011, I set a goal to try 50 culturally diverse restaurants in one year! (I knew that was possible, living in the Houston area) I spent the year pulling in friends and family to join me, on some unusual dining adventures. I met some curious people, tried some scary foods and explored places and cultures I never would have otherwise. Even though I met my goal, I learned too much to end my adventures in dining. I have continued blogging about memorable dining adventures of all kinds, near and far... and all the discoveries and funny things I've learned along the way!
Locations and types of dining adventures, are listed further down.