Updated January 8, 2021
This article is about the original Columbia Restaurant in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa.
Columbia has opened other locations over the years: Sarasota, St. Augustine, Clearwater Beach and Disney's Town of Celebration. They also have locations at Riverwalk in Tampa and at Tampa International Airport.
The original Columbia in Ybor City is still my favorite.
Ybor City is a historic Tampa neighborhood that was founded in the 1880s by Vicente Martinez-Ybor, a cigar manufacturer. The cigar factories employed thousands of immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy.
The Tampa restaurant first opened for business in 1905. It was established by Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., an immigrant from Cuba. Tampa had - and still has - a large Cuban-American population.
After all these years, the restaurant is still owned and operated by the same family.
The restaurant is huge, the largest of any I know of. It occupies an entire city block and has seating for up to 1,700 people in 15 separate dining rooms.
My first experience dining at the Columbia was in 1968 when the restaurant was only 63 years old. It was already a tradition in Tampa and a destination for Floridians and tourists from many locations.
It was the first time I had ever seen a live Flamenco performance. The Columbia has its own Columbia Restaurant Dance Troupe at this location.
The performances are typically on Friday and Saturday nights. You are required to make a reservation for these and pay an $8 cover charge for each person in your party.
The restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner. The menu is loaded with goodies, far too many to mention all of them here. Needless to say, most offerings are in a Spanish theme.
A few examples:
TAPAS (an appetizer)
Chorizo "Espanola": sliced chorizo and onions sauteed in Spanish extra virigin olive oil, served with traditional Cuban crackers.
Empanada de Picadillo: Empanadas suffed with picadillo made with spiced ground beef, garlic, tomato, onions, raisins and olives wrapped in pastry turnovers.
SOPAS y ENSALADAS (soups and salads)
Spanish Bean Soup, the original recipe of Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. Garbanzo beans simmered with smoked ham, chorizo sausage and potatoes in a delicious broth of chicken and ham.
Columbia's Original "1905" Salad. Crisp iceberg lettuce with julienne of baked ham, natural Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese, Worcester Sauce and a garlic dressing.
There are typically about 25 different entrees including beef, fish, shrimp and chicken prepared in a variety of ways. Here are some examples:
Paella "a la Valenciana", prepared in a traditional paella pan, includes clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, calamares, chicken and pork. All baked with La Bomba Spanish Rice, extra virgin olive oil, green peppers, Spanish onions, ripe tomatoes, garlic, spices and splashed with white wine.
Chicken and Yellow Rice "Ybor", one-half bone-in chicken baked with green peppers, Spanish onions, tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin oil and rice. Topped with green peas and red pimentos.
Filet Mignon, grilled choice center-cut tenderloin served with fresh vegetables and yellow rice or potato.
Mahi Mahi "Cayo Hueso", boneless filet of mahi mahi marinated in citrus juices and grilled. Served with mojo marinated onions, hellow rice, yuca and platanos.
They also have many gluten free, vegetarian and vegan offerings.
Flan: Spanish caramel egg custard prepared the old fashioned way.
Mama Guava Cheesecake honors Tampa's nickname of The Big Guava, it is a New York style cheesecake topped with guava.
Columbia has a wide variety of wines and Sangria. You can get just about any cocktail you can imagine. Try the cucumber Margarita.
They also have fresh roasted coffee, Espresso, and Cafe con Leche.
Columbia is open 7 days a week from 11 AM to 10 PM. On Sunday they don't open until 11:30 AM.