Sure, everyone’s been to The Columbia Restaurant. I’m sure you’ve been. Yeah, you. Just look at that smug look on your ugly face. Think you’re special? Well you’re not. You ain’t shit. That is, until you’ve been given an exclusive private tour of the Columbia by a fourth generation Columbia family member, after being driven there in a tight-azz limousine.
…and by ‘tight-azz limousine’, I mean limo/bus hybrid, and by ‘exclusive’, I mean anyone can pay 45 bucks and get it yourself. So it really only excludes the poor. Or the uninterested. Or any combination of the two parties, either expressible in a graph upon which the axes are labeled “expendable income” and “interest in Tampa history”, or a Venn diagram. But I’d still like to imagine that we, myself and my group of social media friends (including Danielle from Metromix, Cara from Healthy Tampa Bay Living, Collin from Yelp, and local badass Tender Branson from Write.Click.Cook.Listen) are all special anyway. So very special and impressive.
SO. We were all instructed to meet in the parking lot of a restaurant outside Westshore Plaza, where we would be picked up by a limousine furnished by Ambassador Limousine, who apparently was responsible for this whole tour. The connection between the the two parties? Unclear. Possibly Illegal. Nevertheless, we all chose to take our lives into our own hands, and get in a giant van with a stranger driving. I guess that’s kinda how limos are all the time. Classy.
While in the limo, we all did body shots and snorted cocaine off a dead raccoon we found in the road and insisted the driver pick up for us. What service! And we were offered complimentary bottles of water. Score. There were wacky led and fiber optic lights everywhere, which was pretty cool. And the radio was on. And there was that mirror on the ceiling so we could all look at ourselves. Yes, for the first time in my life, I finally felt like I was somebody.
At last we had arrived at our destination! And it had only taken us like… 15 minutes or something. At this point, it occurred to me that perhaps there was no real point to the limo ride… I mean, we all had to meet up at one specific location, so why didn’t we just meet at the restaurant we were going to? But rather than continue pondering this, I spent my time taking pictures of the outside of the restaurant, so that by the time we actually went in on the tour, my camera would have little to no battery power left.
We entered the hallowed halls of the Columbia, and informed the hosts who we were, and why we were there. It seemed they did not have any idea what we were talking about. They said they’d try to get everything worked out for us. We didn’t have a contact to meet there, so we politely waited.
By this point, everyone was pretty much sobered up from the limo ride over, and things got real serious real fast. There was yelling and arguing. Physical fighting. Talk of an uprising against the management of the Columbia. Things started to turn ugly, and just as I had grabbed a shield and sword that had been hanging on the wall, somebody had a great idea – call our contact! Of course! It was so easy. And so they did. And then we waited. And waited some more.
I don’t know how much time passed as we waited. At least half an hour. Maybe it was days. Clearly, not all the kinks had been worked out of the tour system. But, eventually, we were approached by our tour guide, and everything began.
And so began out delightful tour of the fine establishment that is The Columbia. We learned much of the history behind the restaurant, from its humble beginnings as a bar with delicious alcohol, to a cafe with delicious coffee due to the buzz-kill that was prohibition, then back to serving delicious alcohol. Oh and there was some food. And some expansion. From a small room with a bar, to a giant mansion with (I’m assuming) secret passageways, and probably a dungeon, The Columbia has grown up into quite the young lady.
Here’s the original bar where it all began! This small corner of the building was the original entirety of the Columbia. Since its opening, many drunken bar fights, heated coffee debates, and various Gasparilla-induced riots have left this bar plagued by countless ghouls and ghosts, thus necessitating The Columbia’s annual tradition of spirit cleansing on New Year’s Day. Just another example of their rich history.
As The Columbia aged, more and more rooms were added on to accommodate their numerous and famous guests (including Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, whose ghost is rumored to haunt the halls of The Columbia to this day). Each room has its own personality and stories behind it, including one room in which the famous historical, non-fictional figure Don Quixote is buried. Pictured above is a room dedicated to The “Krewe” of the Sant’yago, a local cult. Many secret ceremonies and rituals are performed in this room; bizarre rituals intended to bring about the end of the world. Note the attractive lanterns.
The Columbia houses approximately one billion gallons of *real wine*, according to our informative tour guide. Pictured here is their special Spanish wine collection, featuring wines from all regions of Spain. In the center of the display rack is a gigantic bottle of wine, originally designed to satisfy the giants indigenous to the Pyrenees mountain range near the northern border of Spain. Superstition dictates one always keep a bottle such as this on hand, to satisfy any nearby wandering giants and avoid total destruction at their hands.
We were shown the kitchen, one giant room in which they prepare all the meals for the entirety of the restaurant. It is divided up into several different sections, and is quite impressive in person. A large staff work and live in the kitchen, converting the hot grills into warm beds each evening for their daily 4 hours allotted rest. They functioned together much like the oompa loompas of Willy Wanka’s Chocolate Factory, often breaking out in song whenever one of my fellow tourmates would get stuck in a chocolate pipe or turn into a blueberry.
And this is where they make the soup!
Soon our tour ended. Our guide, Caesar Gonzmart Jr., was incredibly knowledgeable, accommodating, and extremely nice. He had lots of little tidbits of information about every room we were shown (which, I believe, was every room there), and entertained any questions we had for him. Honestly, it was very impressive, and a really great experience. Gaining a sense of the history of the restaurant really helps you appreciate not only the restaurant itself, but the whole of Ybor and Tampa. I would never have thought to go on a tour of a restaurant myself, but it was an excellent time.
We were sat down at our own special table in one of the more interesting rooms in the restaurant, and were treated to salad, our choice of entree, and dessert. Whatever it was I had just been told about the restaurant’s history immediately slipped away from me (as you may tell from this review), and all that mattered was food. And really, when it comes down to it, that is the true face of The Columbia.
The Columbia’s best food item just so happens to be its salad. And that means a lot, coming from someone like me. The Columbia’s Famous 1905 Salad. The 1905, made in the 1940s, is pretty much the greatest salad of all time, featuring tomato, ham, green olives, swiss cheese, romano cheese, and a garlic dressing so good you’ll want to kill yourself. AND NOW IT CAN BE YOURS! Go here and steal the official recipe for yourself! It’s quite garlicky, and combined with the worcestershire sauce they add to the salads, it becomes the most amazing combination of flavors one can imagine.
We were given the choice of either a half a Cuban sandwich and soup, or yellow rice and chicken. I, loving Cubans, went with the sandwich. I had a choice of soups, and I went with the Caldo Gallego (over their Spanish bean soup, which is quite delicious itself). The soup is similar to the Spanish bean, but uses white beans rather than garbanzo beans, and has greens. It’s made with ham hock, pork, and chorizo. Its basically soul food. Which is basically comfort food. The soup was warm and savory, meaty, and just generally comforting.
The Cuban sandwich is the classic Ybor meal, and something that I have enjoyed a near-sexual relationship with since puberty. The Columbia has been selling Cubans since 1915, and still use the same recipe that they used then. Which is nice, because there are so many places that just don’t get it right! Ham, roast pork, salami, swiss cheese, mustard, pickles, Cuban bread. That’s it. So they make it properly, immediately beating 95% of the Cubans out there. Their Cuban bread is perfectly crunchy and flaky, and their meats are of superior quality to many restaurants in the area. Their swiss cheese is perfect. That being said, this is not my favorite Cuban available in Tampa(!!!). I know, I know. My favorite is still Ruben’s Cubans, who stupidly sell it with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. Idiots. But they beat out The Columbia, in my opinion, because of their meats. Again, this is shocking, I know. But their delicious roast pork is much juicier and melds together better with the other meats than The Columbia’s. I’m not saying I disliked this at all, of course. I’m just saying… I’ve had better. Sorry, Columbia.
My friend Margeaux, who accompanied me on this journey, got the chicken and yellow rice, which she allowed me to try. The chicken was tender and juicy, and the rice was very good. Still, for the soup alone, I’m glad I chose the soup/sandwich combo.
We were also served a delightfully strong café con leche, and flan for dessert. I can say to you, without a doubt in my mind, this was the best flan I’ve ever had. It was amazingly creamy and sweet, tasting like it was made entirely of love. Physical love. Take that as you will. Recommended 100%… it will convert any non-believer to flan.
All in all, this was a good time. After our meal and good conversation with our new blogger-type friends, we were whisked back to reality by the same limo which had brought us to The Columbia in the first place. But this time there was no drinking, no more lines of coke off of roadkill; all we had left was to reminisce on what had transpired, and plan our reviews which we all had pledged to have posted by the end of that month (October).
I enjoyed the tour quite thoroughly, and the restaurant itself is one of the best in Tampa Bay, if not Florida, so eating there is always a pleasure. Our tour guide was a wealth of information about the restaurant, and a great guy. The limo ride was fun, but I still feel it was completely unnecessary, and provided an odd bookend to an otherwise wonderful experience. Would I pay to do it again? No, I’ve already done it. Would I have paid to do it in the first place? Eh, probably not. It’s honestly just not something I would ever consider spending 45 bucks on for myself, or however much it would cost to put together a full group of people to do. Fun, informative, and delicious. But not something I would have gone out of my way to do. And I’m a food blogger.