Dining Adventure in Ybor City, FL
This neon sign wasn't around in 1905, but the Columbia Cafe was!
I'm so glad I can make a check on the list! I finally experienced the Original Columbia Restaurant, in the historic district of Ybor City.
Columbia, in St. Augustine, Florida
There are seven Columbia Restaurants, still owned and run by the original family. Three years ago, Don and I didn't know that, when we dined in the Oldest City in the US. St. Augustine is OLD and we thought this building was also.
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. The diners in shorts and tee shirts, looked just a bit out of place, with the formal linens and impeccably dressed staff. I wondered about a few nicely dressed older men, who seemed to be keeping an eye on things.
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.
As we headed down, I wondered if the servers used these stairs to carry their trays from the kitchen, to the diners above.
I don't want to think about what it would feel like to go tumbling down those beautiful steps... or the noise of a tray of Mojitos crashing down!
At the base of the stairs, I studied the shiny puzzle-work, beneath the rails. Unlike most of the orderly tile decor, this display was like a crazy quilt, of mosaic pieces!
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. This whimsical door was my favorite. It reminded me of something in a Dr. Seuss book.
We walked through the door and I peered into another room, just off to the right..
The cozy Red Room, was filled up with casual diners, by 12:30.
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
For 90 years, Le Segunda Bakery has provided the bread for Columbia. We learned how the Palmetto leaf was cooked into the bread, to allow the release of steam... or something. Cesar said it also created a seam, that helped the bread open easily, for buttering. I can relate to that!
History in the Hall
We stopped to study some family photos in another hallway. I was excited to get some of the family history straightened out.
It was becoming clear that Cesar was family, but I wasn't sure where he fit in. I'm not sure why I didn't just ask.
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.
I was still confused. Where was our friend Cesar (Jr), on the tree? After doing some searching, I concluded our kind guide, was the first son of Cesar Gonzmart, before he married Adela. Gonzmart's other sons are listed on the tree. Or maybe I am totally wrong.
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 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.