September 22, 2014

Dining With Tolf

A League of its Own

In an industry known for its high failure rate, the Columbia — at 100 — shines.

Robert W. Tolf | 5/1/2005
One of the highlights of this year's Golden Spoon Awards Banquet at Fort Lauderdale's smashingly successful Casa D'Angelo was the standing salute honoring Florida's oldest restaurant, the Columbia in Tampa's historic Ybor City (2117 E. 7th Ave.; 813/248-4961), this year celebrating its centennial.

In a field where the failure rate is legendary, 100 years is an incredible achievement. Four generations of the same family with the fifth in the wings, at a time when only 3% of family-owned businesses survive past the third generation. What an honor it was for Golden Spoon celebrants to raise their glasses and shout olé in tribute to the president of the Columbia Restaurant Group, Richard Gonzmart, and his wife, Melanie. Beautiful people.

A few weeks earlier, the Columbia shouted its own olé welcoming yet another Columbia to the clan. The Gonzmarts were present to welcome the newest, the seventh Columbia Restaurant, at CityPlace in West Palm Beach (651 Okeechobee Blvd., 561/820-9373).

The previous newcomers were the Columbia at Celebration (649 Front St., 407/566-1505), which opened in 1997, and the Sand Key Columbia in Clearwater (1241 Gulf Blvd., 727/596-8400), opened in 1989. The oversized ramble at the architectural wonder known as The Pier in St. Petersburg (800 2nd Ave. N.E., 727/822-8000) served its first black beans in 1988. Five years earlier, Columbia joined all the other "oldests" in St. Augustine, opening in a superbly situated site at 98 St. George St. (904/824-3341).

Oldest of all the clones opened in 1959 on Sarasota's street of round streets, at 411 St. Armand's Circle (941/388-3987). The Patio alongside has lively entertainment and always a crowd, but the music is mod, not the Flamenco that's found only at the Tampa parent.

Columbias young and old all feature the same food that's been served almost forever at the block-long happening in Ybor City -- bean soup with chorizo, sausage and potatoes in a bold chicken and ham stock, "arroz con pollo" (chicken and yellow rice), classic Cuban sandwiches and their classic 1905 salad, named for the year the little storefront cafe served its first coffee to the cigar workers of Ybor. You can make your own. Simply consult the ultimate source on the subject on all things Columbian, "The Columbia Restaurant Spanish Cookbook" by Adela Gonzmart published in 1995.

Adela's Columbia roots go back to grandfather Casimiro Hernandez, who emigrated from Cuba to Tampa and opened a cafe in 1905. Her father was Casimiro II and the second generation in charge, and she was the third with husband Cesar Gonzmart, violinist, orchestra leader, devoted father. Their sons, Richard and Casey, now president and chairman of the board, represent the fourth, exposed from their earliest years to the front room and back, extending their education here and abroad. Casey in top culinary schools in Switzerland and Spain; Richard at the hospitality schools of the Universities of Denver and Madrid. Casey spent 20 years in charge of the Columbia in Sarasota.

Together the Gonzmarts decided to shift expansion strategies and concentrate their considerable talents and energies on improving their current operations, launching in 1998 a structural upgrade of the block-long happening, investing $6.5 million in moderation. The kitchen was completely redone, made 21¼2 times larger and more efficient; old carpeting ripped up, exposing magnificent tiles; art was restored; new sound systems put in; and the staff was increased by 20% with new emphasis put on the landmark's banquet business. They searched near and far for suitable Spanish antiques, tiles and wrought iron, commissioning new leather upholstered dining room chairs, bringing in artifacts and collectibles from their home under the watchful loving eyes of mother Adela, whose life and love of the Columbia was memorialized in a 2004 retrospective at the Ybor City Museum, a must beginning to any introduction to Ybor City.

Her grandchildren are in training to take over. Casey has six children, one at Florida State University learning the basics and another in Tampa working part time at the Columbia, where Richard's two daughters are on the staff. The Gonzmart future is assured. Here's to the next 100 years of Columbia!

Wine Rack
The Columbia proudly promotes Spanish wines in its seven restaurants -- its newest one in CityPlace has a stunning center stage glass-enclosed wine room showcasing some of its 30,000-bottle cellar featuring more than 500 Spanish selections, including remarkable riojas, Ribera del Duero Vega Sicilia and other Denominations of Origin such as La Mancha and Madrid and Somontano, plus something very special -- a quintet of private label bottlings from south of Barcelona; the latest is a sparkling white honoring Columbia's centennial. Overseeing it all is Richard Gonzmart, who is passionate about his wines and his cellars, which hold many other outstanding vintages from countries far removed from Spain.

Tags: Dining & Travel

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