What could I possibly say about the iconic Columbia Restaurant that hasn’t been said before? From its humble Ybor City beginnings in 1905 as a small corner sandwich shop to its current status as Florida’s oldest restaurant and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, the Columbia has been dishing up authentic Cuban cuisine for over one hundred years – and shows no signs of ever slowing down.
Founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., the Columbia Cafe catered to Ybor City’s hard-working and hard-drinking local cigar workers with light meals and strong drinks. In 1918, with Florida’s prohibition laws in full swing, the Columbia hastily transformed into a restaurant and shot glasses were replaced by demitasse cups filled with its own special blend of Cuban coffee.
The original 1905 Columbia Cafe*
Joined by his son, also named Casimiro, Casimiro, Sr. took over the restaurant next door in 1919 and converted it into an additional dining room. Casimiro Jr. aspired to take the Columbia beyond its humble beginnings and envisioned an elegant dining room with music and dancing, the likes of which were unheard of in this part of the country at the time. When he took over the Columbia’s reigns after the death of his father in 1930, Casimiro Jr. began turning his dream into reality by building the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa, complete with an elevated dance floor. He named it the Don Quixote Room. Since then, many more dining rooms have been added, including a 300-seat showroom, called the Siboney Room, designed to showcase top Latin talent.
The Don Quixote Room circa 1950*
Today, the Columbia in Ybor City has a total of 52,000 square feet with seating for up to 1,700 customers in fifteen dining rooms. It encompasses an entire city block! It has also earned more distinguished awards and accolades than you can count. There are also seven offshoots of the original restaurant scattered around the state of Florida, including the first one opened in Sarasota in 1959. All are still run by descendants of Casimiro Sr.
The original 60 seat café from 1905 as it looks today**
With such an illustrious history, you can imagine that the food served at the Columbia is something special. It truly is. I adore eating at both the Sarasota restaurant and at the original in Tampa. There are several signature dishes from the Columbia that I order again and again, including the “1905” Salad. It is my hands down, absolute favorite salad in the whole world.
The “1905” is a mélange of crisp iceberg lettuce, julienned ham, Swiss cheese, tomato, olives and grated Romano cheese tossed with the most fabulous garlicky, lemony dressing. At the restaurant, waiters in tuxedos prepare the salad tableside with great pomp and circumstance, which only adds to its allure. You can also do this at home to impress your friends and family, but I guarantee they’ll be thrilled even if you don’t. Trust me. It is so worth the fact that you will have garlic oozing from your pores for days after you eat one of these!
When I make the “1905” at home, I do often add some ingredients not included in the original recipe. It’s a salad after all, and I like to improvise. I like to put cucumbers and radishes in my salad for extra crunch. Sometimes I’ll throw in a few anchovy fillets as well – just for fun. I’m crazy that way. Whatever extra things you decide to add, just make sure you don’t leave anything out. I firmly believe that every ingredient is there for a reason, and leaving one out will mess with the synergy of the dish. And, we definitely wouldn’t want that!
As you’ve probably already guessed, this salad was also part of the Cuban feast I’ve been telling you about. If you decide to try it, do what I did. Make extra dressing to keep on hand for the rest of the week. It actually gets better as it sits in the fridge and is great on steamed vegetables and grilled chicken too.
Columbia “1905” Salad
from the Columbia Restaurant
4 cups iceberg lettuce, broken into 1 1/2″ × 1 1/2″ pieces
1 ripe tomato, cut into eighths
1/2 cup baked ham, julienned 2″ × ⅛” (may substitute turkey or shrimp)
1/2 cup Swiss cheese, julienned 2″ × ⅛”
1/2 cup pimiento-stuffed green Spanish olives
2 cups “1905” Dressing (see recipe below)
1/2 cup Romano cheese, grated
1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, according to your taste
1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, according to your taste
Combine lettuce, tomato, ham, Swiss cheese, and olives in a large salad bowl. Before serving, add “1905” Dressing, Romano cheese, Worcestershire, and the juice of 1 lemon. Toss well and serve immediately.
Makes 2 dinner salads or 4 side salads.
1/2 cup extra-virgin Spanish olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/8 cup white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix olive oil, garlic, and oregano in a bowl with a wire whisk. Stir in vinegar, gradually beating to form an emulsion, and then season with salt and pepper. For best results, prepare 1 to 2 days in advance and refrigerate.
*Photo from tampapix.com
**Photo from Columbia Restaurant