This being the start of the most food-focused week on America’s calendar, I thought it timely to share our experience at the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa, FL. Happy Thanksgiving, from our family to yours!
Where we went, and who was coerced into going:
Date nights are few and far between these days, so when we visited my parents in Tampa this spring, we were no sooner in their front door before dropping the kids like hot potatoes to be spoiled rotten by Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma makes them mac n’ cheese from scratch…with a cheese sauce started with a roux. It is, as The Boy described it when he was just six, the “pièce de résistance.”
Our date night included The Columbia Restaurant, the world’s largest Spanish restaurant. The Columbia welcomes families, so we could have brought the kids, but The Girl in particular would probably not appreciate the wait for our made-to-order meals.
WHY did you go there, exactly?
The Columbia is actually a chain of seven restaurants throughout Florida, but the original location is in historic Ybor City. Tampa’s “Latin Quarter,” Ybor City is where Cuban immigrants built a home away from home in the early 1900’s. You can make a day of exploration here, visiting the Ybor City Museum State Park, Centro Ybor, and José Martí Park. Strolling along Seventh Avenue is also a treat, with shops, cigar shops, and even a hookah bar. We took advantage of the time we had sans offspring to take in a few of these sites, capping off our afternoon with an early dinner.
Okay, what was so cool about it?
Three highlights make dinner at the Columbia a special occasion: the architecture and ambiance; the food; and the flamenco show. Over 100 years old, the Columbia boasts authentic Spanish and Moorish architecture, original art, and decor. There are touches of vibrant tile work, natural stone, stained glass, and stately wrought iron in nearly every room. There’s a lovely mosaic-tiled fountain in the Patio Dining Room.
Paella “a la Valencia” is the most popular dinner dish on the menu here, with about 400 orders served on a typical Saturday evening. The Columbia’s other signature dishes include Snapper “Alicante,” Pompano en Papillot, Filet Mignon “Columbia,” and the original “1905″ Salad, which was named “One of America’s Top 10 Best Salads” in 2008. I had the paella, and Matt had the Steak Salteado, made with smoky, succulent chorizo. He always orders the better dish…always. I don’t know how or why. He’s become used to dividing up his meal and handing some over to me, rather than subject his dish to the inevitable attack from my fork and knife.
Oenophiles, take note: the Columbia’s wine list includes some 850 wines and more than 50,000 bottles. Spain’s leading winemakers have recognized the Columbia as having the most complete and the world’s best collection in the world of Spanish wines.
Flamenco dance shows are performed twice every night except Sunday, and a jazz band performs on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. We enjoyed the show very much, so thirsty were we for cultural immersion above and beyond Dora the Explorer episodes. A troupe of four dancers performed a variety of numbers together, as duos and trios. Flamenco is such an expressive, theatrical dance, reliant on exaggerated facial expressions, stomping, clapping, and impromptu shouts of encouragement from each other. The girly girl in me was delighted by the colorful ruffled skirts and fringed shawls.
The music is both traditional and contemporary, like this piece by the Gypsy Kings:
A little background info about the place:
The Columbia is notable more for its history than its size. Founded in 1905, this flagship restaurant is the oldest in the state of Florida, and is still owned and operated by members of the 4th and 5th generation of the founding Gonzmart family. The Don Quixote Dining room, built in 1935, was the first air-conditioned dining room in Florida.
The Columbia was proclaimed the “World’s Largest Spanish Restaurant” in 1965 by General Francisco Franco of Spain. The title is based on its size of 52,000 square feet. There are 15 dining rooms, with seating for 1,700 people. On a Saturday night, 120 people work at the restaurant, which encompasses an entire city block.
How it rated on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = snoozefest, 10 = add to your bucket list):
7. A meal at the Columbia is a worthwhile addition to your Tampa itinerary, as long as it’s part of a longer visit to Ybor City.
Hey you! Go BIG:
2117 East 7th Avenue, Tampa, Florida 33605. (813) 248-4961