In my three years of blogging I’ve learned a number of valuable things. First, no matter how bad something tastes, if you dress it up and take a good picture it can still make mouths water. Second, the world will never run out of music (good or bad). Third, and perhaps most importantly, if a restaurant that has been around for over one hundred years suggests that you know nothing about them and insists on bringing you in for a tour and free meal you calmly say with a smirk “The Columbia? Never heard of it. I’d love to come by.”
In reality everyone who lives in Tampa and has a pulse knows about the Columbia, the oldest Spanish Restaurant in Florida and one of the World’s Largest. Taking up one square block of Ybor and decorated with all kinds of ornate mosiacs and motifs, it is hard to miss. But Erin (from 352 media) had a point when she asked “how well do you really know the place?” Other than the name, I knew nothing. I thought I knew that they served only seafood and had no vegetarian items on the menu but a quick look at their website said that all that information I was fed, was wrong. I needed this tour.
Scheduled for Sunday afternoon, I arrived at the parking lot of Season’s 52 around 11 A.M where some fellow Tampa Bay Food bloggers (Danielle from Metromix, the Monster from Tampa Bay Food Monster, Colin from Yelp and Cara from Healthy Tampa Bay Living) and I were met by a limo from Ambassador Limousine.
With blinking lights, iced water, television screens, ceiling mirrors and climate control the vehicle was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. For a few moments I envisioned myself as Nelly. I was snapped from this dream upon arrival at the Columbia. It was 11:30 and the party was about to begin.
Sign out Front In Case You Didn’t Believe it was Old
The Archway into El Patio
At least that is what all of us thought. But after entering the Columbia we were told by a hostess that the restaurant doesn’t open until 12:00. After explaining who we were she said that someone would be with us shortly. So we waited. And waited. And waited. Forty-five minutes later we were met by fourth generation Columbia family member, Caesar Gonzmart Jr. Hungry and a little perturbed it took a few moments to get into what Caesar was saying but when I finally fell, I fell hard. Caesar’s knowledge about the restaurant and the stories he told were fascinating. He walked us through the twelve dining rooms explaining the symbolism and importance of each and the 5000 square foot kitchen. He talked about the food, the history, the wine and the paintings.
I could spend the next thirty minutes detailing the stories he told but I’ll stick to the one that fascinated me the most (you want others then you’ll have to take the tour which will be offered as part of a package deal between Ambassador Limousine and the Columbia in the upcoming months. To book call 866-508-9050). The Patio, which sits in the center of the restaurant and has a huge amount of natural light that comes in through the ceiling, used to have a retractable roof (and you thought the Skydome was first). Designed by Tampa architects, the roof could be opened on sunny days and pulled shut when it rains. But anyone who lives here knows that a day can quickly go from sunny, to rainy and back. This caused many problems as people would be sitting and enjoying an afternoon lunch when a sudden storm came on and sent them dashing. Other times the roof would be left open at night and thunderstorms would leave the restaurant soaked in the morning. Around 1951 it was decided that the roof should be closed forever and so it was.
To see additional pictures from the tour go here.
What about the food? The sad thing is that the tour only offered a limited amount of choices (no black bean cake for me). I chose a full order of black bean soup (the main course choices were chicken and yellow rice or a cuban sandwich with a bowl of soup). The black bean soup didn’t really strike me as anything special. It was good, but something I can do at home. I did like that they brought me a bowl full of onions to put on it (which I probably wouldn’t do at home).
Along with the soup we were given a slab of Cuban bread (with the creamiest, dreamiest butter I’ve had in years). I wolfed it down fast.
The highlight of the entire meal was the salad. The 1905 typically includes lettuce, ham, Swiss Cheese, olives, Romano and garlic dressing. I asked for the ham to be removed. When it arrived I sort of snorted at it. This was the salad that had won awards in USA today? There wasn’t much too it. But one taste of the so-garlicky-it-burns dressing and I knew why. In one word, amazing.
To top it off our dessert was Flan. Normally I wouldn’t eat Flan because of how much it jiggles and shakes (anything that dances better than me does not get eaten). Because it was free and placed in front of me I decided to give it a try. I wound up eating all of it. For Flan it was good. But for a real treat I plan to return and try the Brazo Gitano “Cien Anos” or the “Tres Amigos.”
This tour was a wonderful experience. Once the kinks are worked out (and perhaps some additional vegetarian options offered) I’d recommend this tour to anyone looking for something unique, something that truly says Tampa.
While none of the pictures shot in there came out, one of the dining rooms at the Columbia is all red. It used to be a cocktail lounge but has since been transformed into a blood red eating area with swords, a shield and crest adorning the walls and floor. Musically speaking, that calls for a backflip indie combo containing a little GoodbyeMotel performing “Redroom.” Go here, join the mailing list and get their new EP free.