Dining at the Oldest Restaurant in Florida: Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City
A lthough I have dined at an establishment in Madrid which proclaims to be the oldest restaurant in the world — and that claim has been vehemently disputed by readers of The Gate — I have never dined at what is proclaimed as the oldest restaurant in Florida and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world…
…but as part of a large group, I had the opportunity to dine at Columbia Restaurant at its original location in the Ybor City Historic District of Tampa, which was founded in 1905 and expanded next door in 1919; and it has been owned by five generations of the same family since its founding.
On a metal sign erected by the Columbia Restaurant which looks like a historical marker is the following text:
The Rough Riders Rode By Here 1898
The intersection of Seventh Avenue and Twentysecond Street was a sandy cross-road connecting three army encampments in the Ybor City area during the Spanish-American War.
As this cross-road was located a water-trough were the Rough Riders watered their mounts.
Col. “Teddy Roosevelt” frequently rode by here on his horse “Texas,” followed by his little dog “Cuba.”
A second historical marker — erected by the Tampa Historical Society in 1982 pertaining to the actual restaurant itself — is shown in the above photograph.
The interior of the restaurant is divided into separate dining areas, with all of the tables set with tablecloths, place settings, and a candle in the center.
The area where our group was located was not as well illuminated; but that was fine. Buffet tables were set up with bread; several choices of hot and cold items; and a flan for dessert.
Items which were available included:
- The legendary award-winning Original 1905 Salad, comprised of crisp iceberg lettuce with julienne of baked ham, natural Swiss cheese, tomato, green olives, grated Romano cheese and a “famous” garlic dressing — $5.95 when served with an entrée; and $11.95 for a larger serving on its own
- Cuban bread
- Red snapper “alicante” — a signature entrée whose recipe was created in 1938 and costs $29.00 if ordered off of the menu — features snapper baked in a casserole with sweet Spanish onions, green peppers, a rich gravy, olive oil, fresh garlic, sauterne wine and topped with sliced roasted almonds; and it is served with yellow rice garnished with fried eggplant and shrimp supreme
- Green beans
- Platanos Maduros, which is sweet fried plantains
- Paella Campesina, which is comprised of Valencia rice with beef tenderloin, pork, chicken, chorizo and green beans which costs $26.00
My plate had virtually everything on it.
Located on a separate table was the flan — which is the signature dessert on the menu; and it costs six dollars. The recipe used for it dates back to 1935 when the Columbia Restaurant opened the Don Quixote room, which was the first “Conditioned Air” dining room in Tampa.
The flan is comprised of Spanish caramel egg custard prepared the old-fashioned way, using only the best natural ingredients. A sliced strawberry accompanies it.
After everyone finished their dinner, the flamenco dance show started.
Two women performed in the flamenco dance show.
Are you a — er — fan of flamenco dance?
The food was rated from good to very good, in my opinion; but because the menu for the large group was fixed, there was not an option to order other food items offered by the restaurant. Because of the buffet, there was very limited wait service — although the few people who did tend to our large group were friendly, attentive and helpful.
I would have rated the Original 1905 Salad excellent — the secret, in my opinion, is that the salad is prepared two days in advance and kept in the refrigerator until ready to serve, allowing all of the ingredients to integrate — except that I do not care for ham or cheese; so I picked those ingredients out of the salad. I would have also rated the Paella Campesina excellent had it not contained pork and chorizo, which I picked out as well. I ate the plantains; but I am not particularly fond of them. I did enjoy several helpings of the red snapper — although I would have preferred the fish in a lighter sauce rather than brown gravy; but it was still quite tasty. I also had several helpings of the green beans — which were crisp and lightly seasoned — and Cuban bread.
Some fellow members of the large group surmised that the quality of the food items in the buffet were not as good as the identical items offered on the menu; but there was no definitive proof to substantiate that claim.
Despite those caveats, I recommend dining at the original location of Columbia Restaurant the next time you find yourself in the Tampa area — especially if you have never dined there before. Gluten-free; vegetarian; and vegan options are available if you have special dietary needs.
2117 East 7 Avenue
Tampa, Florida 33605
Casual attire is fine, but sleeveless shirts worn by men are not permitted.
Monday – Thursday 11:00 in the morning — 10:00 in the evening
Friday – Saturday 11:00 in the morning — 11:00 in the evening
Sunday 11:30 in the morning – 9:00 in the evening
Lunch and dinner is served daily, as the restaurant is open 365 days of the year.
Flamenco Dance Shows: Monday through Saturday at 7:00 in the evening and 9:30 in the evening. There are no flamenco dance shows on Sunday. There is a cover charge of six dollars per person for the show. Please call 1-813-248-4961 for reservations for the flamenco show.
Live music in the Café: Tuesday through Saturday at 7:00 in the evening — 11:00 in the evening with the Dick Rivers Band.
All photographs ©2015 by Brian Cohen.