The Colombia restaurant is the definition of a Tampa Bay institution. It claims to be the oldest restaurant in Florida, and its first location (because now there are many, including one at the Tampa International airport), takes up an entire city block on Ybor City’s infamous 7th Ave. The restaurant has been run by 5 generations of the Casimiro family starting in 1905 and continuing today in 2018.
The building itself is incredible. You enter through a somewhat nondescript doorway and are brought into an atrium that immediately transports you back to a time when people dressed for dinner. To the left of the hostess stand is a framed historical document that advertises The Colombia’s compliance with Prohibition, but if you ask the right person they will show you that the wall the document is posted on is actually a doorway concealing to a staircase, which leads to the secret attic The Colombia staff used to use to hide liquor during those conservative years.
Every dining room in The Colombia is unique. In fact, the Don Quixote room was the first ever air-conditioned dining room in Tampa. The colorful tile you see throughout the restaurant (including the pitcher servers make their famous Sangria in) come from the Triana district of Seville, Spain. The restaurant even has an adjacent museum that features pieces of art and historical artifacts from the institution’s history.
Reading the menu is like reading a family memoir that is well versed in local Cuban history. The description of their house salad alone is a full paragraph, and the various sections of the menu are decorated with historic family photos. The Colombia offers traditional Spanish Tapas, up-scaled Cuban dishes like Ropa Vieja, and local Tampa Bay inventions like the Cuban Sandwich, which call all be washed down with a delicious mojito that has an actual piece of sugar cane sticking out of it.
But with all of that history, cultural influence and celebration, the sad truth is that there are only a few things on the menu that The Colombia does exceptionally well. It is a controversial stance to take when discussing this restaurant that has been the premier restaurant in the region for over 100 years, but true nonetheless.
So if you are planning on visiting The Colombia Restaurant, first of all, make sure it is the original one in Ybor City, then make sure you understand what to ask for in order to have the best experience possible at this location that exemplifies living history.
Step 1: Getting There
Even though not everything on the menu is delectable, the trip into Ybor city is well worth it for an evening out. Reservations are recommended, but not particularly hard to get, so just call ahead. If you would like to see the Flamenco dancers, who perform every night of the week except Sunday, you will need a special reservation and you will be paying an $8 entertainment cover per guest. You can valet your car right at the front door, and while dressing up is in no way required, why not throw on some cocktail attire to dine at a restaurant that once served Marilyn Monroe, and more recently, George Clooney?
Step 2: Drinks & Bread
Your meticulously dressed waiter may engage in some pomp and circumstance before taking your drink order, so be ready for a quick introduction to the beautiful interior of The Colombia. When it comes to drinks, their wine list is somewhat limited, but if you are a fan of Spanish wine then you are in luck! The best cocktails on the menu are the Mojito, which comes in a highball glass with fresh mint and a stick of sugar cane that a lot of people mistake for a straw when they are first served, and the Sangria Tinto, which your waiter will mix for you table-side and serve in a stunning ceramic pitcher from Seville, Spain.
In between your drink order and their delivery, a different waiter will deliver an individual piece of Cuban bread to every guest at the table, along with their own shallow ceramic dish of soft, whipped butter. The piece of bread you receive is not a slice of bread or a roll, but rather an entire chunk off of a loaf of Cuban bread, and each chunk is hand-wrapped in a thin piece of white paper. If you have never had Cuban bread, you are in for a treat. Baked fresh daily at La Segunda Central Bakery down the street, Cuban bread is hard and crispy on the outside, and soft and airy on the inside. The flavor is mild, but when it is spread with the soft whipped butter, something magical happens. Do not panic if you see what looks like a long black hair sitting on top of your bread – that is just a leftover palmetto leave. La Segunda Central bakes Cuban bread the traditional way. Before each loaf goes into the oven a fresh palmetto leave is placed along the length of the bread, which causes the surface to crack aesthetically. Also, keep in mind that you are not limited to just one piece of this Amazing bread. If you ask your waiter for more, they will continue to bring you fresh warm bread and a new butter dish.
Step 3: Ordering your Meal
At this point, many are tempted to try a variety of tapas or traditional Cuban food. Some of these selections are excellent, but overall the main courses here are over-salted and under-sauced. Instead, opt for the entrée portion of their famous 1905 Salad. This salad is unique and filling. The following description is pulled from the Colombia’s menu verbatim:
“The Colombia’s legendary salad tossed at your table. Crisp iceberg lettuce with julienne of baked ham, natural Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese, and our famous garlic dressing. The award-winning salad won honors from USA Today as “One of the 10 Great Places to Make a Meal Out of a Salad”. The signature salad, named for the year the restaurant was founded in Tampa’s Latin district of Ybor City, was inspired by immigrants to the Cigar City: Romano cheese from the Sicilians and the famous garlic dressing used by Cubans to marinate fresh roast port, plus Florida tomatoes, iceberg lettuce (*Originally known as crisphead, iceberg lettuce got its name from the layers of ice covering heads of lettuce being shipped to Tampa via Henry B. Plant’s trains. As the trains pulled up, people would yell, “Here come the icebergs!”), julienne of baked ham and Swiss cheese. In the ‘40s, Tony Noriega, who ventured to New York City during the Depression to find work, added a “secret ingredient,” Worcestershire sauce, to the recipe” (source).
Why that lengthy description includes the entirety of the ingredients listed twice, or that detail about the man headed to NY (a place that is decidedly not Tampa), for work instead of describing how he came to add his secret ingredient, we may never know. But lengthy pontifications aside, this salad is absolutely delicious. You have the option to order the salad with either turkey or grilled Shrimp rather than the ham, but don’t do it. Stick with the original.
A few minutes after your order is submitted, your water will wheel a petite card over to your table, and present each ingredient of the salad as he prepares it and tosses it in front of you. Once you have your first bite of the decadent, vinegary taste of this hearty entrée salad, you will not even wonder what anything else on the menu tastes like.
Step 4: Dessert and Coffee
The desserts on this menu are really nothing to write home about, but if you have an insatiable sweet tooth, then it is really hard to go wrong with either the Flan or the Key Lime Pie. If you are a fan of an after-dinner coffee, then definitely go for the café con leche. The beverages consists of strong coffee mixed with scalded milk in a 1:1 ratio, and it is unbelievably better than a latte. It may keep you up a few hours later than you are used to, but it is worth it.
Step 5: Heading out into Ybor
A night at the Colombia wouldn’t be complete without a stroll down 7th Ave following dinner. Depending on what time of night it is, you will encounter an increasingly eccentric cast of characters. From the man who carries around a boa constrictor in a shopping cart and charges people for pictures, to the rotating parade of insanely tricked out vehicles that roll down 7th every 15 minutes or so, it is almost like getting a show along with dinner. There are some fantastic bars on the strip if you are looking for a nightcap, but those tips belong in a different article.
The ideal order at The Colombia Restaurant:
- Pitcher of Sangria Tinto (doesn’t even matter if you are sharing it or not)
- Multiple orders of the Cuban Bread
- The Entrée portion of the 1905 Salad
- Flan and Café con Leche for dessert