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Located at 2117 East 7th Avenue, the Columbia Restaurant has a total of 52,000 square feet with seating for up to 1,700 customers and encompasses an entire city block.  It earned the "Distinguished Restaurants of North America Award of Excellence" 2005 - 2008, one of the most prestigious awards in the fine dining industry. Named to Florida Trend Magazine's Golden Spoon Hall of Fame the industry's highest regional award as "One of the Top 25 Restaurants in Florida." Named "One of Florida's Top Restaurants" since 1967. Winner of Wine Spectator magazine's Best of Award of Excellence for Spectacular Wine List Selection, 2007 - 2004, for an outstanding collection of Spanish wines (more than 1,000 wines with an inventory exceeding 50,000 bottles). Also, Award of Excellence issued from 1993-2003.

Read an excellent article about the
Columbia Restaurant by Nick Anis

OLD PHOTOS
Corner view, 1929

Side view, 1935
Daytime photo, 1950
 

 

 

The Columbia Restaurant, 1950

 

               

 


Founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., the Columbia Restaurant is Florida’s oldest restaurant and the world’s largest Spanish restaurant. As an ambitious young Spaniard, Hernandez left Cuba with his family and dreams in 1902.  Lured by the opportunities in Ybor City, Tampa's cigar-producing Latin Quarter, he saw a prosperous future in the land of plenty. No stranger to hard work, he found his future in the Florida brewery on Fifth Avenue. Casimiro worked at the brewery long enough to glimpse a new opportunity at a place named the Columbia. 
 

The restaurant began as a small corner café which was originally a humble saloon (left).  Known for its Cuban coffee and authentic Cuban sandwiches, the Columbia Café catered to Ybor City's hard-working immigrants and local cigar workers with light meals and strong drinks.  With Florida's prohibition of alcohol in 1918, the Columbia hastily transformed into a restaurant and expanded the facility.  Casimiro took over the restaurant next door, La Fonda, in 1919 and converted it into an additional dining room. His son, Casimiro Jr. was invited by his father to take the helm and so joined the business.  La Fonda was owned by the Garcia brothers who went on to own a share of the Columbia Restaurant until the 1930s when Manuel Garcia sold his share to Hernandez and went on to buy Las Novedades in 1938.

Casimiro may have become a full-time restaurateur, but that is not to say he abandoned the sale of strong drink altogether. It was by no means uncommon, especially in Ybor City, where citizens had a healthy disdain for Prohibition laws.  Bolita, an illegal lottery brought from Cuba, became Tampa's favorite pastime. The Columbia's bartenders were never without work, but demitasse cups replaced shot glasses. Tampa became known for Ybor City's delectable food and fine cigars. Columbia classics such as Spanish Bean Soup, Cuban sandwiches, and Arroz con Pollo (Chicken and Yellow Rice) became the highlights of many a visit. In 1919, Casimiro’s son sought to transform the Columbia into an elegant dining room with music and dancing. Casimiro, Jr. was truly a visionary because in 1919 there were no such restaurants in all of the Southeastern United States.

Below: The 1906 café transformed from a saloon in 1905 into the Columbia Restaurant.  Right:  The café in 1950,  Today, the Cafe Dining room is one of 15 dining rooms.

Cafe Dining room, 1950

 

  

 

 

Following the death of Casimiro Sr. in 1930, Casimiro Hernandez Jr. took over ownership 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. The Great Depression initially slowed business, but Casimiro Jr. bounced back with the opulent Don Quixote Room for banquets and dancing in 1935. The tiles depicting the story of Don Quixote brought splashes of color and a touch of Spanish romance. The finest musicians and orchestras graced the stage with jazz, flamenco, and salsa.  Music brought the Don Quixote to life.  State-of-the-art air conditioning relieved exuberant dancers.

Left: View of the Don Quixote dining room from the restaurant entrance.  Below: Built in 1935, the Don Quixote dining room as it looks today. This was the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa. Quixote Rm 1950    Quixote Rm, front 1950   Cocktail lounge, 1950

 

 

 

 

Casimiro Hernandez, Jr. and his wife, Carmen

IT TOOK AN ACT OF CONGRESS TO KEEP THE FINEST SPANISH FOOD IN THE WORLD AT THE COLUMBIA RESTAURANT

Francisco Pijuan began his career at age 14 cooking for army generals in Spain, where it is said he served as King Alfonso's personal chef.  The Spanish monarch favored heavy stews and meat dishes.  After cooking in Havana for a while, he came to the U.S. in 1923, smuggled aboard a fishing boat in 1923 at Tarpon Springs.  He eventually found work at the Columbia Restaurant, and raised the quality of the cuisine to new heights.  After he decided to stay in Tampa, he sent for his wife and children, who quietly slipped into the country.  A congressional act had grandfathered in illegal immigrants such as chef Pijuan, but his family arrived too late for blanket amnesty.  When immigration authorities learned of this, they announced that Pijuan's family would be deported.  Local politicians sprang into action to help Pijuan and Casimiro preserve the Columbia's incredible cuisine for themselves and their grateful constituents.  Private Law 225, "For the Relief of Mrs. Pacios Pijuan" was passed in Congress to correct the situation. 

Casimiro Hernandez, Jr. held that Chef Pijuan had no peer.  As far as Casimiro was concerned, Pijuan was the only master chef at the Columbia.  The Columbia's most  illustrious chef died in 1949, an irreplaceable master in the kitchen.  His last request was to be buried with a Columbia Restaurant menu on his chest; Casimiro himself, placed the menu in Pijuan's arms at the funeral, to be sure he held it just right.

 

 

Vincenzo "Sarapico" Perez then became the "de facto" head chef at the Columbia.  Starting off as a waiter in the restaurant in 1938, Perez soon worked his way into the kitchen as a chef and advanced in skills under Pijuan.  Perez earned his nickname, which meant "Little Bird," because of the way he fluttered about the kitchen in haste, "ruffling his feathers" like a frantic bird.  In 1949, the Columbia held a press conference to announce Sarapico as the Columbia's 2nd great chef.  The photo at right shows this conference, with Casimiro's son-in-law Cesar Gonzmart making the announcement.  Gonzmart, holding up 2 fingers to indicate Perez as the Columbia's 2nd great chef, is standing next to Perez.  In the background, Casimiro holds up 1 finger to indicate there would only ever be one great chef at the Columbia--Pijuan.

(Story and photos from "The Columbia Restaurant, Celebrating a Century of History, Culture and Cuisine" by Andrew Huse.  A "Must-have" book for any Tampa native, it features history, photos, and recipes.)

See newspaper article re: Act of Congress (Photo in article is not chef Pijuan)
 

 

                               

 

Casimiro Jr. and his wife, Carmen had one child, Adela Hernandez. Adela was a beautiful concert pianist who was trained at the Juilliard School of Music. In 1946, Adela married César Gonzmart, a concert violinist and handsome showman. They traveled throughout the United States while César performed in famous supper clubs during the early 1950’s.

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 and raising their two sons, Casey and Richard. The family persevered in keeping the restaurant open during the late 1950s and all thorough the 1960s when Ybor City was dying.  Urban renewal cut the heart from the Latin Quarter. More families moved out. Businesses closed. César Gonzmart realized they had to do something to bring people back to Ybor City.

   
Mouse over above to see the Patio Dining room today

Adela Gonzmart in the Patio, 1947.  Casimiro Jr. built the Patio Dining Room in 1937 to resemble an Andalusia courtyard from the south of Spain.  Surrounded by a balcony with a colorful circa 1906 Columbia Restaurant Café mosaic-tiled fountain.  The statue "Love (Cupid) and the Dolphin" stands in the middle. It is a replica of a sculpture found in the ruins of Pompeii. A retractable glass skylight was installed, giving the room a wonderful bright and sunny look during the day, and an enchanted glow at night.

Another 1947 photo of Adela standing by fountain

 

Adela Gonzmart performing in a TV studio at WFLA

 

        

       
 

The Patio Dining room in the late 1930's, known then as the "Solarium"

A young couple enjoying the
fine service,
circa 194
8.
Mouse over
photo to see
them enjoying
Flamenco
dancer

 

View of Patio from Mezzanine, 1950

  

César Gonzmart - Known to his customers and across the industry as a man who made lasting impressions, Gonzmart was born César Gonzalez - named by his mother for the legendary Roman emperor.  At the age of three, he accompanied his mother, aunt and grandmother on a cruise to Cuba. Having been impressed by shipboard violinist, he started lessons at age six.  In 1935 at age 15, César earned $20 a week substituting in the Columbia Restaurant's band, a job he held for three months before leaving for Deland to attend college.

A successful student, musically and otherwise, he went to Stetson University on a scholarship after only 2½ years at Hillsborough High School.  When César was 18, he was a symphonic violin soloist. He attended the University of Havana, earning a doctorate in music, and stood as the Havana Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster at age 21. He married and fathered a son, César Gonzalez, Jr., who would eventually join the United States Department of State as a career diplomat. That son had no connection to the family restaurant business.

After performing as a concert violinist in the United States and Cuba, César also found lucrative success performing popular music with his touring orchestra, César Gonzalez and his Magic Violins. At that point in his life, César Gonzalez changed his name to Gonzmart, drawn both from his father's surname of Gonzales and his mother's of Martinez. He later explained that he had wanted to establish his own identity. 

In 1946, César married Adela Hernandez, the granddaughter of Columbia founder Casimiro Hernandez Sr.  Adela, a Juilliard School of Music graduate, was an accomplished touring pianist. Notably, Adela had played at Carnegie Hall. After the wedding, César and Adela Gonzmart toured together until César was convinced to work instead at the Columbia. Though it was a considerable financial loss, César complied to provide stability to the couple's son, Casey.  The following year, their second son Richard was born.  Although he traded his career as a musician for one as a restaurateur, César regularly serenaded his guests. He learned the business quickly, and he and Adela began to have input in the decisions of the Columbia. In 1956, they convinced Adela's father, Casimiro, to build another large room, the Siboney dining room, named after a town in Cuba where American forces landed in the Spanish-American War (also the name of a song by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona).

César had a flair for the artistic and flamboyant.  Some of the top Latin talent during that era came to perform in this large showroom. The 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. 

                             

 

 

Ernesto Lecuona, composer of "Siboney"   (Click photo to listen, song has a 15 second musical intro)


Siboney is a town in Cuba east of the city of Santiago de Cuba. In 1898 Siboney and the nearby village of Daiquirí were locations where American forces came ashore in the Spanish-American War. It was also the location of a farm where Fidel Castro and his men gathered shortly before the attack on the Moncada Barracks, which is widely regarded as the start of the Cuban Revolution. 

 

The song is said to be the pleading of a lovesick man for his lover, Siboney.  He sings that he dies for her love, and that she is a treasure.  At the end, he pleads that the thick of the jungle doesn't drown out the crystal clear echo of his song, as he waits for her in his hut.

 

Arguably the most important Latin musical figure of the early 20th century, Ernesto Lecuona (b.1895 - d. 1963) wrote hundreds of works during the era, including popular standards (Malagueña, Andalucia aka The Breeze and I, Siempre en Mi Corazon, Comparsa, Noche Azul and Siboney) as well as operettas, ballets, and an opera.

Born in the Guanabacoa section of Havana in 1896, Lecuona earned fame first as a concert pianist. His two brothers and two sisters all became musicians. One brother was a violinist, the rest played piano. Ernesto received his first piano lessons from his elder sister and became a prodigy. He gave his first public performance at the age of five and had his first composition published at 11. He graduated from Havana's National Conservatory of Music at the age of 15 and taught piano and voice. At 17, he played in concert at the Aeolian Hall, New York City, USA. In the early 20s, Lecuona continued his musical studies in France, where he studied under Maurice Ravel.

Ernesto soon became a concert sensation (his piano recordings run into five volumes).


Lecuona had been composing songs even while studying piano however, and he copyrighted two of the most famed songs in the Latin repertoire -- "Malagueña" and "Andalucia" -- during the late '20s. His group, the Palau Brothers Cuban Orchestra (later renamed the Lecuona Cuban Boys), toured America during the 1930s and became a huge success.

Lecuona had his own band, originally called his Orquesta Cubana, that performed popular Cuban music. Curiously, he was not the pianist with the band. This position was filled by the classically-trained Armando "Fichin" Oréfiche (b. 1911, Havana, Cuba), who was also a composer and arranger. Their concerts comprised of Ernesto performing his own pieces for solo piano and the band playing material from their repertoire of popular Cuban numbers, many of which were written by Lecuona and Oréfiche. 

In 1934, Lecuona was medically advised to return to Cuba after suffering from severe pneumonia while touring in Spain with the band. The band was renamed the Lecuona Cuban Boys, and under the musical leadership of Oréfiche and Ernesto "Jaruco" Vázquez, they continued to tour Europe extensively with considerable success until the outbreak of World War II. Collections of recordings they made in Europe during this period have been issued. During the war the band toured Latin America. In 1946, Armando Oréfiche and his tenor saxophone and bongo playing brother, Adalberto "Chiquito" Oréfiche, left after a leadership dispute and formed the Havana Cuban Boys.

Lecuona chose not to work at the piano while composing, preferring a card table. Typically, he would work in creative bursts that would produce astonishing results. He reportedly once wrote four songs that would become hits: Blue Night, Siboney, Say Si Si, and Dame tus dos rosas/Two Hearts That Pass in the Night, in a single night: January 6, 1929. The following year Andalucia and Malagueña were on the charts.  Ernesto's niece, Margarita Lecuona, was a mezzo soprano and accomplished composer.  She wrote "Babalu" in 1941, the song made famous to Americans by Desi Arnaz in 1946.

Lecuona composed the scores for four MGM films during the early '30s, and earned an Academy Award nomination for the title song to 1942's Always in My Heart. Lecuona, named the cultural attaché to the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1943, rarely performed after World War II, preferring instead to cultivate his Cuban farm. He left his native country for Tampa in 1960, denouncing Castro's revolution and vowing never to play again until Cuba was free of communism. Apparently, he never did perform professionally again.  He lived his final years in the US. He died 3 years later while on vacation at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, at age 68, and is interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.  Read a detailed biography about Ernesto Lecuona

At Left: Miguel Vicente Bonifacio Roig (then editor of Club and Radiales magazines), Ernesto Lecuona, Cuban troubadour Miguel Matamoro of 'El Trio Matamoros'and Gonzalo Roig.

Ernesto Lecuona's music has been used in numerous movies:  1. Charlie Wilson's War (2007) Song ("Siboney") 2. The Lost City, (2006) Song ("La Comparsa"), Song ("Danza Lucumi"), Song ("A La Antigua") 3. Once Upon a Time In Mexico (2003) Song ("Malaguena")  4. Before Night Falls (2001) as Composer 5. Buena Vista Social Club (1999) Documentary, Song ("Canto Siboney") 6. Forces of Nature (1999) Song ("Siboney") 7. The Impostors (1998) Song ("Siboney") 8. Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986) Song ("Jungle Drums (Canto Karabali)") 9. American Pop (1981) Song ("Say Si Si") 10. Ricochet Romance (1954) as Composer 11. As Young As You Feel (1951) as Composer 12. The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady (1950) as Composer 13. When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948) as Composer 14. Carnival in Costa Rica (1947) as Composer 15. Cuban Pete (1946) as Composer 16. Song of Mexico (1945) as Composer, Music Score 17. Song of Mexico (1945) as Composer, Music Score 18. Babes on Swing Street (1944) as Composer 19. Get Going (1943) as Composer 20. It Comes Up Love (1943) as Composer 21. Get Hep to Love (1942) as Composer 22. Always in My Heart (1942) as Composer  23. Swing It Soldier (1941) as Composer 24. When You're in Love (1937) as Composer (credited as Ernest Lecuona) 25. Las fronteras del amor (1934) as Composer 26. La cruz y la espada (1934) as Composer.

 

 



During César Gonzmart’s reign, the Columbia also expanded to other locations in Florida. In 1959, Columbia Restaurant opened on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, and is still there today. It is now Sarasota’s oldest restaurant.

Even while at the helm of Columbia, Gonzmart never quit being the entertainer. Until illness got in the way, he performed regularly at the Ybor City location where music has always been key to the dining experience. César Gonzmart, concert violinist, Spanish "nobleman" and energetic chairman of the Columbia Restaurant group, died after fighting a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. Waging a gallant and sometimes hopeful fight to the end, the 72-year-old restaurateur passed away at his home in Tampa on Dec 9, 1993.

        

             

The Kings Room - Entrance to the Sancho Dining Room and Patio Dining Room and stairway to the Kings Dining Room

 

 

                

A suit of armor stands guard outside the Sancho Dining Room. 

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