Oldest Family-Run Restaurant
Legacy of The Columbia
By Melissa Bryant
If you’ve ever dined at Florida’s oldest restaurant – the Columbia in Ybor City – you may have presumed the name related to the style of cuisine or region of origin.
Interestingly, the founder of the famous family-operated restaurant was Cuba-born Casimiro Hernandez Sr. who chose the name “Columbia” to symbolize his pursuit of the American dream. You see, the term Columbia stems from the surname of Christopher Columbus and, in honor of the great explorer, personified liberty. Hernandez first heard the name in a song called Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean, an unofficial anthem of the United States during the Civil War era.
Fast-forward to present day and you’ll discover that Hernandez’ great- grandson, Richard Gonzmart, is now at the helm of the Columbia – serving guests in the same historic brick-and-mortar building his great grandfather established and using the same sound business principles that the family patriarch held dear.
A Nostalgic Look Back
South Florida Opulence spoke with Richard, who eagerly recalled his family’s story. Hernandez Sr., his wife and four children, came to Ybor City when it was the cigar capital of the world, home to more than 180 cigar factories during the 1800s and early 1900s.
Upon his arrival, Hernandez Sr. began working at a brewery. The brewery eventually opened a small bar called the Columbia Saloon — the tavern that would later become the oldest family-run restaurant in Florida. In what seems another historic moment of serendipity, the Columbia Saloon opened on December 17, 1903 — the very same day Orville and Wilbur Wright took their first flight. By 1905, Hernandez Sr. realized that he wanted to be his own boss, bought the Columbia Saloon and renamed it the Columbia Café.
Known for its Cuban coffee and authentic Cuban sandwiches, the Columbia Café soon became a gathering spot for cigar factory workers who walked to and from work early in the morning and late at night. Business boomed. However, Richard says his family’s success didn’t come without its challenges.
Changing with the Times
After 14 years in business, in 1919 the Columbia Café had to reinvent itself due to Prohibition. No longer able to depend on the sale of beer and alcohol, the family had to recast their direction by merging with a restaurant next door to focus more on food.
Then the Great Depression hit. Richard’s grandfather, Hernandez, Jr. took a courageous risk and borrowed $35,000 to build what was the first air-conditioned dining room in the city of Tampa, complete with a bandstand for social gatherings. A tremendous success, they built another dining room with a skylight that opened electrically. “It felt as though we were in the south of Spain,” Richard said.
The Family Business
In spite of the Columbia’s changes, the restaurant has preserved heritage through strong family values. Richard remembers, back when he was 3 years old, the first time he entered into the kitchen through a walk-in cooler door. There lay fresh grouper, red snapper, papillot and trout — heads and tails intact. Frightened, Richard ran out to his grandfather, telling him the fish were going to bite him. His grandfather took him back to the cooler and taught him how to tell if the fish were fresh — “look at the eyes for clarity, open up the gills to see if it’s dark bright red inside.”
Since then, it became Richard’s job every Friday to go to the cooler and check the fish for freshness. “So that’s what I did,” Richard said. “I would go in there, so proud, and report back — until the day the fish had already been filleted — heads removed to make stock for the paella. Startled, I ran out of the cooler crying. My grandfather asked, “What’s wrong now?” I told him, “I can’t tell if the fish are fresh, there’s no heads!”
Although the Columbia now has a state-of-the-art kitchen, the door to the cooler remains where Richard went through to check the fish for freshness. Every time he walks by the door, he remembers what his great grandfather taught him. Richard says remembering tradition is how they survive. “It’s embedded in us. We are born with a passion, and it is passion we pass on, from one family to another.”
For more than 100 years, the Columbia Restaurant has thrived off its award-winning Spanish/Cuban cuisine, century-old family recipes and live entertainment. They make their own rum, bourbon and tequila and hold the title of World’s Largest Spanish restaurant. Yet Richard credits the enduring success of the Columbia Restaurant to traits much more down-to-earth: family, community and tradition.