Daaahhhling. Sometimes, design is just delicious! That’s my best impersonation of designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard, a sweetheart of a man who has a very distinct way with words.
Sometimes, a restaurant is exquistely designed, but the food and service aren’t up to snuff; others are total dives with a fantastic menu and staff; some balance a fine line between the two.
Enter a classic in tradition, cuisine and design: The Original Columbia Restaurant on 7th Avenue in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa. Owned by the Gonzmart family from day one, it has long been one of my favorite haunts.
The fourth generation is in charge now.
I’m from around there somewhere, my dad grew up in a house around the corner, and I’ve been going since I was knee high to a fly. The food is always superb, but it’s the overall experience that is so compelling.
During a trip to my old stomping grounds a few days ago, I realized I’d never taken my children to the Columbia. Don’t be mistaken, I’ve taken them to every location of the restaurant we were within 50 miles of, but never to the original restaurant. Shame on me!
Really. Shame. Hubs and I went without them.
The decor in the restaurant is both timeless Spanish Colonial and Classic Cheeseball, depending on your perspective. I love it, but I’d love to get my hands on it too. Just a little Botox and filler; no major surgery.
You’ll find lots of elaborate Versacesque tile:
Some very worn beauties with years of patina:
And a little faux-schmo that could stand to go:
Really. Look at that dude’s face. He’s not crazy about it either!
Keep the bust and the tile, but grab a roller. A good old-fashioned paint job would fix that right up.
Personally, I don’t think they should lay a finger on the Red Room.
That, dear reader, is a signature room. Historic. Besides, how many brothels have you been to that have swords and serve to-die-for Arroz con Pollo? Come to think of it, how many brothels have you been to?
It sparkles, big time!
It’s also huge. Here it is in the context of the room:
Fab fixture, but those black 80’s track lights need. to. go. This room is my favorite, love the iron and tile work, sans cans. LED spots and wall washers would make lighting magic here, and save money too.
I also think they should relocate the wine room you see along the back wall to my house. They have a top-notch collection and I would appreciate every bottle. If you agree that it should all be mine, I’ll invite you over when the installation is complete.
Cue the sound of popping corks!
On this trip, we sat in the atrium. It was great to dine under a wealth of natural light.
It was a perfect afternoon.
My food snob foodie, son was very impressed with the difference in the cuisine at the Ybor City location, my particular youngest daughter cleaned her plate and her four year old gobbled up half a loaf of the legendary La Segunda Bakery’s perfect Cuban bread in two-seconds flat, then promptly asked for more. He’s a picky eater, but he finished his meal that day. The baby loved it too.
When I was a kid, we would go to the factories in Ybor City and watch the Cuban ladies hand roll cigars for entertainment. There were rows and rows of work tables laden with tobacco.
I had no idea I was witnessing my first sweatshop situation, but I was in awe watching them work. It is an art form. The factories don’t exist in the same form these days, but you can still buy a hand-rolled cigar at the restaurant.
My grandmother would also take us down to Ybor’s Silver Ring to grab deviled crab. We ordered in English, the owners shouted it back in rapid, heavily accented Spanish. Somehow, we always got the right order and then we would load it up with hot sauce and fill our stomachs with happiness. Sadly, the Ring is gone, and with it, a major part of my childhood.
Luckily, the Colombia is one of the few remaining authentic Cuban restaurants from the early days of Ybor. They’ve picked up the deviled crab crown and they wear it well. There isn’t one thing I would steer you away from on the menu. They even have gluten free options, so go in confidence, my friend!
Be sure to order a pitcher of sangria. Ok. Three. Then call a cab.
It is legendary.
It’s a house specialty. So is the pitcher. You can take one or four of those home, too. They are imported from Spain and quite lovely. I adore mine!
Fun things happen at night. Glam Flamenco dancers entertain you with clacking castanets and a lot of sexy hip swivels. If you can’t get to the original location, be sure to stop by one of their other Florida locations. You may not get the historical ambiance that is so prevalent in Ybor City, but you’ll still be treated to a fantastic meal!
Check out their website here, and be sure to grab their no fail cookbook. It is my go to reference for authentic Cuban cuisine.
They also take OpenTable reservations. And if you go, please them I sent you. Maybe they’ll throw some saffron love my way.
Word of warning, if you go in January, watch out for pirates. They take over the town, in another fantastic childhood memory. The last time I went was in 2010 and peg legs, pretty maids and drunken parrots were everywhere. Gar!