Operated by the same family since 1905, the Columbia Restaurant is the oldest restaurant in Florida and one of the largest Spanish restaurants in the nation. With humble beginnings as a café and saloon in Ybor City, the Hernandez and Gonzmart families expanded the business, first into adjacent space on its city block, and later opened restaurants around the state. The Columbia is most notable for how it evolved and adapted with the changing developments in Ybor City. Acquired by Casimiro Hernandez Sr. in 1905 from a Mr. Vasquez, Hernandez cultivated a solid business and bought the property in 1912. The Saloon Columbia quickly became the expanded Columbia Restaurant with the help of new partners (the Garcias of neighboring La Fonda Restaurant) at the onset of state and federal Prohibition laws.
During the 1930s, the Columbia’s Don Quixote dining room cashed in on the popularity of entertainment for dating couples, especially dancing to the accompaniment of orchestras and big bands. The dining room was the brainchild of Casimiro Hernandez Jr., who took over operations in the 1930s. During the 1950s and 60s, the Columbia became a regular stop on the Latin American entertainment circuit with the help of violinist Cesar Gonzmart, who joined the Hernandez family with his marriage to Adela Hernandez, daughter of Casimiro Jr. Cesar’s focus on entertainment, publicity, and tourism helped maintain business while Ybor City slid into decline. Breakfast and lunch service fell by the wayside in favor of more glamorous dinner shows. Middle American favorites such as hamburgers, pork chops, and steaks were added to the Spanish/Cuban menu, and Italian specialties were gradually phased out.
Expansion began with a Sarasota Columbia in the 1950s, and expansion began in earnest during the 1980s. After the death of Cesar Gonzmart in 1992, his sons Richard and Casey took over the operations of the Columbia Restaurant Group, salvaging the company’s finances and improving the quality of the food and service. They continued to expand locations and renovated the Ybor City location’s kitchen, finishing the multimillion dollar project as the 21st century began. Adela Gonzmart and Ferdie Pacheco’s Columbia Restaurant Spanish Cookbook (University Press of Florida, 1995) brought acclaim in the mid 1990s. The restaurant celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2005. The Columbia Restaurant Centennial Museum opened in a nearby property in 2004, showcasing the Gonzmart family’s extensive antique collection until 2006. In 2009, the comprehensive history of the restaurant was published (University Press of Florida), authored by USF Special Collections Archivist Andrew Huse. Richard Gonzmart has gone on to develop his own restaurant concept, Ulele, for Tampa’s old Water Works building, projected to open in summer 2014.