In 1905, Casimiro Hernandez Sr., began selling Cuban sandwiches and cafe con leche to the legions of his cigar-making compatriots who lived and worked nearby, but who longed for a taste of their native island, a world away.
A story of history, family, and flavor
The family behind Florida’s oldest restaurant, Ybor City’s The Columbia, shares memories of a century gone by — and their recipes for keeping history alive.
By Betty Cortina-Weiss
Photos by Chris Zuppa
Her business card bears no title. Instead, the words inscribed below the name Andrea Gonzmart read simply: Fifth Generation. As in, that’s precisely how long her family has been running one of Florida’s most storied eateries — the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa’s Ybor City.
The choice of those words in particular came from the top: Andrea’s father, Richard Gonzmart, the charismatic and celebrated entrepreneur who heads the company that operates the restaurant. Richard Gonzmart designed the cards this way because “he understands that we are truly family-owned, that we don’t look at this as work but as what our family has done for generations,” says Andrea, a co-operator at the Columbia. “This is more important than a title.”
And just as important as history. The Columbia, the state’s oldest restaurant in continuous operation, first opened more than a century ago, in 1905, just 20 years after the founding of Ybor City, a prosperous manufacturing community built and populated almost entirely by immigrants from Cuba, Spain, and Italy.
Home to the day’s largest cigar factories, it was here that Andrea’s Cuban great-great-grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez Sr., began selling Cuban sandwiches and cafe con leche to the legions of his cigar-making compatriots who lived and worked nearby, but who longed for a taste of their native island, a world away.
By 1930, the small shop had taken over a large restaurant space next door and, in the midst of the Depression, the family added an elegant (and air conditioned!) dining room. They named it the Don Quixote Room, and complemented a new, more elegant menu with music and dancing. By the 1950s, now in the hands of a third generation, another venue was added, this time for live musical and theatrical performances — the Siboney Room.
“I have these beautiful photos of my grandmother looking glamorous and dressed up here,” Andrea recalls. “Every Saturday evening she would come to watch the flamenco show and my grandfather would play the violin.”
Over the years, expansions continued, and today the restaurant occupies a full city block, features 15 rooms and has the capacity to seat 1,700 people at any given time.
The taste of heritage
And while it’s a bonafide Florida institution known for elegance and celebrity sightings, the true draw has always been what emerges from the kitchen. Steaming platters of golden yellow rice, generous bowls of silky black bean soup, shrimp swimming in a scrumptious aromatic garlic sauce and, of course, the legendarily crisp Cuban sandwich — real food made with real recipes passed down from generation to generation in the Gonzmart family. “We are all about honoring the past,” Andrea says. “Not reinventing it.”
As devoted to Cuban and Spanish culture and cuisine as her family is, Andrea nevertheless remembers growing up in a home with typical American flavor. “Both my mom and my dad cooked and we ate at home five or six nights a week,” she recalls. “There was a lot of beef stew and pork chops and mac-and-cheese. My mom is Italian so there was Italian food, too, and because my grandmother was Spanish there was lots of garlic and onions and olive oil. Food was definitely a big part of our life — at the restaurant and at home.”
A deep sense of reverence for heritage has helped drive the restaurant company’s growth in more ways than one. With seven Columbia’s open statewide, the Gonzmarts have recently broadened their focus. In 2014, they opened Ulele, named after a Native American princess who was one of the first to meet early Europeans, featuring a menu inspired by the state’s native ingredients. In 2016, they revived Goody Goody Burgers, the very first drive-in east of the Mississippi, which opened in Tampa in 1925; the family bought the company’s trademark recipes and its historic, iconic sign.
Now, the family is in the midst of what could be the biggest new venture yet: a Sicilian restaurant down the street from the Columbia, in a former macaroni factory. One of the city’s most anticipated openings, it promises to be an homage to Tampa’s early Italian settlers who shared the region with the Gonzmart family’s Cuban ancestors — a full circle moment in Florida food history.
“My father is working really hard to make his mark,” Andrea says, noting that there are an additional two Gonzmarts who continue to work at the company — her uncle Casey Sr. and her cousin Casey Jr. “He wants to tell Florida’s story through food, and that’s really a story of diverse cultures coming together.”
This article by Betty Cortina-Weiss originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of FORUM magazine.
The Columbia’s signature dessert, this is a silky custard topped with a luscious caramel — all easily made at home. Just be careful not to let the milk boil or the caramel burn.
For the custard:
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 8-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 strip lemon peel (1/4-inch wide)
1 whole cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Caramelized sugar (recipe below)
- Combine whole milk and condensed milk with lemon peel and cinnamon stick in a heavy saucepan; scald. Beat eggs and add sugar, vanilla extract, and salt in a medium-sized mixing bowl, blending well.
- Add milk mixture gradually, straining the lemon peel and cinnamon stick. Pour into 6 4-ounce ovenproof custard cups with caramelized sugar in bottom (see below). Place cups in hot water (2 inches deep) and bake in preheated oven at 300 degrees for 40 minutes. Never let water boil or custard will be filled with holes.
- Remove from pan and cool in refrigerator. To serve, unmold by pressing edges of custard with spoon to break away from cup, then turning upside down. Spoon caramelized sugar from bottom of cup over top of each custard. Serves 6.
For the caramel:
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon water
Place sugar and water in small skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until sugar is a golden brown color. Pour immediately into six 4-ounce ovenproof custard cups, approximately 1 teaspoon in each.