November 15, 2011

Road Trip: Florida's Columbia Restaurant

My husband and I just got back from a two week long road trip that we took with our now 6 week old son...  Yes, we are some of those insane parents determined to stay mobile with an infant.   It was exhausting at times, (especially for my husband who did most of the driving), but overall it was a great vacation.  We were able to visit family, relax and eat a lot of great food!

A view of the patio dining room at Columbia Sarasota
While visiting my family in Florida, we made it a point to have lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, the legendary Columbia Restaurant.  We were unable to visit the original Columbia Restaurant in Tampa, c. 1905 during this visit, but instead we went to the location on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, Florida which was opened in 1959.  Columbia, Florida's oldest restaurant, is also the world's oldest Spanish restaurant.  Owned and operated by the Hernandez Gonzmart family since it's beginning, the Columbia restaurant now spans seven locations and has won several awards; including the Best Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, "One of America's Top 10 Salads" from USA today, and several awards of excellence and distinction as both a Spanish restaurant, and a restaurant in general.  The awards are well deserved and the menu definitely lives up to its reputation.

For much of the very warm summer, I had been craving a mojito... and no one makes them like Columbia does!  They are also known for their incredible Sangria, (both their red and white are fabulous), but I had mojitos on my mind.  There is something incredibly refreshing about the taste of mixing cool mint leaves, tart lime juice, a touch of sweetness, a little fizz and, of course, the rum... We ordered a pitcher which, prepared table side by our waiter, made it even more fun to enjoy.

There is, of course, more to a restaurant than the drinks they serve and Columbia's menu offers plenty of delicious dishes to choose from... all served with generous portions of warm, freshly baked, crusty, cuban bread and butter.

"1905 Salad"

They are very well known for their "1905 Salad", a mix of crisp iceberg lettuce, julienned swiss cheese and baked ham, beefsteak tomato wedges, spanish olives, freshly grated Romano cheese and their incredible garlic dressing.  The meal-sized salad is assembled and tossed table side, but we opted to order the smaller versions to accompany our tapas lunch.

Black Bean Cakes
Chorizo "Espanola"
My husband and I had the "Tapeo" Sampler- made of three tapas of our choosing.  We ordered gambas "Al Ajillo", (shrimp sauteed in olive oil, garlic and chili pepper), black bean cakes, and chorizo "Espanola".  All three were mouth-watering.  My mother ordered the tapas plate of Empanadas de Picadillo- two perfectly assembled empanadas filled with their family recipe Picadillo served with a fresh corn and black bean salsa...delicious!

The food, along with the friendly and attentive staff, the beautifully decorated dining rooms and fresh open-air environment right on St. Armands circle made for a wonderful afternoon.  On our next visit, I'm hoping to be able to experience the original Columbia restaurant in Tampa and learn more about the restaurant's rich history... perhaps while enjoying a glass of their Sangria!

You can learn more about Columbia Restaurant on their website.
Photo of patio dining room was taken from the Columbia website.

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