The Columbia, Tampa, Fla.
In the restaurant business, age isn’t everything. Sometimes, a city’s best food will be found at its newest place to eat, as a new idea comes in and changes its food scene, bringing attention along the way from across the area.
But age does still count for something, because only truly great places manage to stay in business for multiple generations. Even fewer manage to make it to the century mark, and when one does, it’s really something special. That’s the case for the Columbia, which is the oldest restaurant in the state of Florida, having been in business since 1905. I’m honestly not sure what Floridians did for meals during the 60 years of statehood that preceded the Columbia (yes, they have been in business for almost 65 percent of Florida’s history in the United States), but I’m betting that it was a pretty welcome creation back then.
I’m also betting that the reasons it was welcome then are the same things that make it what it is today: the Spanish influence. Located in the insanity that is Ybor City, the Columbia embraces Florida’s past more than its present. Long before the influence of Cubans in Florida, the Sunshine State was the property of the Spaniards. So rather than being a homage to Mexican or Cuban, both of which can be found quite easily throughout the Tampa Bay area, the Columbia focuses on Tampa’s European history, from its decor and presentation to its high-quality meals.
First, there’s the sheer size of the Columbia. Per its website, it’s actually the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. I’m not sure if most Spanish restaurants are merely the size of my apartment, but in either case, the Columbia is huge. It was easily big enough to seat Amy’s entire family for my first meeting with them, and it had plenty of room left over for other customers. The place is big enough that it can even be used for wedding receptions (as opposed to actual weddings). Pretty impressive. The one drawback is that the size does make it very difficult to hear people who aren’t right next to you, but we all have our little problems.
Conversation isn’t what makes a restaurant great anyway. What makes a restaurant shine is its food, and the Columbia gets it done with both its quality and its presentation. The presentation actually begins before you even sit down to eat, as the Columbia offers a loaf of Cuban bread with every meal. Along with the bread, they include an individual whipped butter dish, which is the epitome of class. I’m not sure why whipped butter says that, but it does. Plus, the bread is simply fantastic, long and toasted to perfection.
I regret to say that I can’t speak about the appetizers at the Columbia, despite both the soup and salad being incredibly famous. I do have to mention them for that reason. The Spanish bean soup features garbanzo, ham and chorizo with potatoes, while the 1905 salad includes ham, Swiss, lettuce, tomato, olives and garlic dressing. Both of these are considered iconic here, and I’ll be sure to sample at least one when I make a return trip. Missed on this one.
But that’s OK, because the real iconic part of the Columbia’s menu comes in the form of Spanish seafood. Specifically, the Columbia’s strength is the red snapper, which they refer to as the King of Gulf fish. I had never had real red snapper before, and I’m not sure having it anywhere else would top the Snapper Adelita I ordered. The Adelita comes with sun-dried tomatoes, hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, garlic and onions, which is actually fewer vegetables than come with the considerably more famous Snapper Alicante.
Personally, I thought that was a good thing because it allowed me to taste the snapper itself. When ordering something uncommon like red snapper, you really don’t want the flavor to be masked by anything. After all, you ordered it, you’re paying the price for it, you might as well taste the thing you’re really paying for. It’s worth it, because the snapper is light and flavorful. The sun-dried tomatoes work well with the fish, while the artichokes provide a nice difference in texture and taste. It’s served with what the Columbia refers to as “Good Rice”. I’m not sure what makes the wild rice good or why they need to label the rice as good (seeing as how the yellow rice certainly isn’t bad rice), but it does live up to its name.
As you might have guessed, Amy opted to go for fish as well, choosing a baked stuffed grouper on a bed of yellow rice, stuffed with lump crab meat. It’s served covered in a passion fruit butter sauce, and for some reason, that slight sweetness works. The sauce is creamy, the fish is succulent and the crab meat is simply amazing. No doubt about it, my girlfriend knows how to pick a meal.
After dinner, Amy proved that yet again. Despite the fact that her sister Amber brought in cupcakes to celebrate Amy’s birthday, Amy insisted that we try the flan and some plantains. The plantains are basically fried bananas, and they taste wonderful. The flan is even better, soaked in caramel and prepared perfectly. I’d never had the Spanish custard before, and I’m not sure I’m going to have a better one. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing to try the best version of something on your first shot or not, but I’d certainly rather have it first than not at all.
Age might not be the thing that makes a restaurant great, but after 108 years, it’s clear that the Columbia knows exactly what it’s doing in displaying Florida’s Spanish past on a plate. Short of actually going to Madrid or Barcelona, this might be as close as you can get to the authentic Spanish restaurant experience.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner, although you shouldn’t go too late. The Columbia is in Ybor City, and Ybor City is kind of a raging disaster late at night. Although it’s not north Nashville, it’s still not a great place to be at night. Plan accordingly.
Wait during my visit: None, because we had a reservation. That’s the best plan of action when coming here.
Location: The Columbia is at 2117 East 7th Avenue in Tampa, Fla. It does have other locations, but this is the original.
Parking: There’s a small lot near the restaurant.
Cost: Pretty pricey. When you’ve been in business this long and use high-brow ingredients to make extravagant dishes, you will be costly. Plan on about $25-30 a plate.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs, and this one isn’t very easy to maneuver around, as you occasionally hit some table posts. Plus, the arrangement means you can hardly hear people who aren’t right by you.
Website: The Columbia
Specialty items: Spanish cuisine