(USA TODAY) -- The scene: The Columbia is the oldest restaurant in Florida and the oldest Spanish eatery in the United States. It's also one of the largest, seating about 1,600 patrons in a dozen different dining rooms.
When the self-proclaimed "Gem of Spanish Restaurants" opened in 1905, Ybor City was experiencing the tobacco equivalent of the Gold Rush. While known as a largely Cuban Tampa neighborhood, the town was actually founded by a Spaniard, Vicente Ybor, who hired large numbers of Cuban workers and built the area into the world's cigar-making epicenter, home to more than 200 factories in the early 20th century. At one point Ybor City produced an estimated 500-700 million hand-rolled cigars annually, a staggering figure, but starting with the Great Depression, cigar-making here died, and today there is just one factory left. But the Columbia is more popular than ever, and perhaps the colorful neighborhood's most enduring symbol.
The Columbia occupies a full block, and that's still not enough – on the adjacent block is a museum devoted to the restaurant, which does double duty as an event space, since the Columbia is very popular for weddings, wakes, birthday parties, corporate outings and every other imaginable celebration. There is also a large gift shop in the complex, selling everything from T-shirts to sangria pitchers to cigars – they often have a hand-roller in the restaurant. The twelve dining rooms are widely varied in size and each completely unique in décor. The two oldest areas are large open dining rooms flanking either side of the original bar, built when Theodore Roosevelt was president, and these feature well-worn original Spanish tile floors, high ceilings and walls covered in period photos and endless newspaper and magazine articles about the place.
It has since been expanded many times, including the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa (1935). One room has red velvet-covered walls, crossed swords as ornaments, and a conquistador feel, while another evokes a traditional Spanish inner courtyard with a bubbling fountain and terraced balconies all around. One celebrates Moorish architecture; another, with seating for 200, hosts live entertainment each weekend, including flamenco dancing. All throughout, every picture, piece of art, or bric-a-brac has a story.
Despite its size, the way it is broken up into so many spaces allows the Columbia to retain an amazingly intimate feel, aided by the friendly, personal service from veteran tuxedo-clad wait staff. It is a dark, cool respite from the Florida sun, an atmospheric place that is equally welcoming to a cadre of longtime regulars, often multi-generational, and tourists, who flock here in droves. Remarkably, after nearly 110 years, it remains owned by the founding family, operated by the great-grandchildren of founder Casimiro Hernandez – with yet another generation waiting in the wings. The Columbia is very locally popular and has spawned six other Florida locations, including two in Tampa, a café at the Tampa Bay History Center along the city's popular Riverwalk and a full-service location in the Tampa airport. There are additional spots in Clearwater Beach, St. Augustine and Celebration.
Reason to visit: Tableside salad, tableside sangria or mojitos, Cuban sandwich, tapas, house special entrees, flan.
The food: The original Columbia is so charming it would be fun to visit even if the food was not good, but fortunately, that is not the case. It is however, an odd mix of Spanish and Cuban, related but different cuisines, plus an Italian influence, thanks to its setting in multicultural Ybor City. This fusion is evident immediately upon opening the large menu, which begins with cocktails and adult beverages. The first page is all mojitos and daiquiris, decidedly not Spanish, along with a random Mexican margarita and an offbeat martini take on classic Cuban coffee. Beer comes from Spain, as do many wines (there are several glass-walled cellars, one all Spanish, including collector wines), and even the bottled water, Penaclara brand, is imported from Spain's Rioja region. But the real Spanish flair comes in the form of several sangria options, some made at your table, as are pitchers of mojitos – tableside flourishes are a recurring theme here and integral to many things you can order. Even the standard café con leche is poured and mixed with milk in front of you.
The menu is vast, with soups, tapas, sandwiches and entrees, but a few famed signatures stand out, starting with the "Columbia Original 1905 Salad," which, of course, is tossed tableside. The ingredients are fairly non-descript -- mundane iceberg lettuce, julienned deli ham and Swiss cheese, with supermarket tomatoes, olives and grated Romano cheese -- but it comes together thanks to the house-special and highly addictive garlic dressing, which brings people back. "A lot of our regulars tell me they tried to replicate it at home and it didn't work," said our server. "I think it's because all oil is different and we import our olive oil special from a particular estate in Spain and that makes it unique." Whatever it is, it's very good.
All meals are accompanied by a slab of warm Cuban bread served wrapped in paper. Other top sellers include the empanada appetizer, which is very good, two large pieces with fresh meat filling and flaky, rich clearly homemade crust. Roast Pork a la Cubana, which is citrus-marinated, slow-cooked, then sliced and cooked again in gravy until falling apart, is also very tasty. The Cuban sandwich is a signature here, and very large, a full loaf of bread, also available as a half with soup or 1905 salad, a top choice. The sandwich, while very enjoyable, was a bit different from the Cubans I've had in the Caribbean, New York and South Florida, breadier, not quite as flattened, and with genoa salami in addition to the traditional trio of ham, roasted pork and Swiss cheese. The menu attributed the sandwich to Ybor City's mix of ethnic cultures, including the Sicilians who contributed the salami.
One of the most interesting dishes, and another house signature, is the Salteado, an Asian-inspired stir fry in a hot iron skillet credited to the influence of Chinese who lived in 19th-century Cuba. This is a sauté of onions, green peppers, garlic and mushrooms, made Spanish by use of olive oil for cooking and the addition of potatoes, chorizo and a splash of red wine, done with a choice of chicken, beef or shrimp, and served with yellow rice. This was an old school take on fusion cuisine, before there was such a thing, and it is surprisingly delicious, one of my favorites at Columbia.
The menu is big enough where you could visit several times without ever coming close to repeating, or just once with a group and have no problem satisfying everyone's tastes. You could make lunch of a half sandwich meal, a big dinner of entrees and apps, or simply share from the slate of nearly two dozen tapas, most of which are traditional Spanish offerings including albondigas (Spanish meatballs), piquillo peppers, croquettes and a thick sliced omelet, tortilla Espanola. The desserts are also well worth a look and range from Floridian specialty key lime pie to churros with a trio of dipping sauces, guava, chocolate and caramel, but the two signatures are the white chocolate bread pudding and the old-fashioned flan, which is excellent. Whatever you choose, the food will probably satisfy and the charming setting and excellent service certainly will.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but along with world-famous Bern's Steakhouse this is one of the two must-try restaurants for Tampa visitors, and the airport location serves among the best such food you will find on the fly.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: Original, 2117 East 7th Avenue, Tampa; 813-248-4961, columbiarestaurant.com/ybor.asp
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Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at email@example.com. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.