Columbia — Florida’s Oldest Restaurant

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Key Culinary Tours will be profiling our partner restaurants from time to time and this week, we highlight a St. Armands' staple.

Columbia began in Tampa’s Ybor City (pronounced EE-bore) as a small 60-seat corner cafe known for its Cuban coffee and authentic Cuban sandwiches, frequented by the local cigar workers.  Casimiro Sr. took over the restaurant next door in 1919 and converted it into an additional dining room.  His son, Casimiro Hernandez Jr. also joined the business.

Following the death of Casimiro Sr. in 1930, Casimiro Jr. took over ownership and operation of the restaurant.  Casimiro Jr. aspired to take the Columbia beyond its humble beginnings and envisioned an elegant dining room with music and dancing, the likes of which were unheard of in this part of the country at the time.  During the height of the Depression, he took a chance by building the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa, complete with an elevated dance floor.  He named it the Don Quixote Room.

Casimiro Jr. and his wife, Carmen, had one child, Adela Hernandez Gonzmart.  Adela was a concert pianist who was trained at the Juilliard School of Music.  In 1946, Adela married Cesar Gonzmart, a concert violinist.  They traveled throughout the United States while Cesar performed in famous supper clubs during the early 1950s.  In 1953, Adela’s father, Casimiro Jr., was in failing health, so they returned to Tampa.  They divided the business duties of operating the restaurant while raising their two sons, Casey and Richard.

The family persevered in keeping the restaurant open during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s when Ybor City was dying.  Many of the row houses that once housed the cigar workers had decayed into slums.  Urban renewal cut the heart from the Latin Quarter and more families moved out. Businesses closed.  Cesar Gonzmart realized they had to do something to bring people back to Ybor City.

Cesar had a flair for the artistic, and upon taking over direction of the restaurant, he built the Siboney Room in 1956.  Some of the top Latin talent during that era came to perform in this large showroom.  Who would have thought that world class entertainment could be found at a restaurant?  Columbia survived those lean years and came back stronger than ever.  The entertainment tradition continues today at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, where Spanish flamenco dancers perform every night except Sunday.

During Cesar Gonzmart’s reign, the Columbia also expanded to other locations in Florida.  In 1959, Columbia Restaurant opened on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota.  Today, it is the oldest restaurant in Sarasota.  And in the entire state of Florida.

To enjoy a stop at Columbia during the Key Culinary Tour, CLICK HERE.

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