Richard Appelgren

Image: Tim Robison

Quality service, even at some of Sarasota’s best restaurants, too often means jotting down your order correctly, bringing out your plates quickly and keeping your water glass full and the drinks coming. At Columbia, one of Sarasota’s oldest restaurants and a St. Armands Circle institution since 1959, being a server requires putting on a show.

A meal there might start with sangria mixed tableside by your server, continue with a “1905” Salad tossed right before your eyes, move on to paella dished out as you watch and end with crème brûlée torched inches away from you.

Chilean-born Richard Appelgren started at Columbia as a dishwasher in 1984, before he could speak English. After eight months, he earned a spot as a busboy and eventually became a server. Now an assistant manager, he has been training other servers about the importance of building rapport with diners, which is the whole point of all that tableside attention. The showmanship at Columbia isn’t about wowing a guest with technique. The minutes spent stirring sangria give a server time to have a conversation and make a real connection with guests. “We’re creating a memory,” Appelgren says.

Of course, some things have changed at the Columbia. When Appelgren started, the servers wore tuxedos and bow ties, the guests dressed up for a night out and the carpeted floor kept the space quiet and reserved. Now, the vibe is more casual and boisterous, and the servers’ jackets have come off. But Columbia still requires job applicants to have a minimum of two years of experience serving elsewhere, and managers are unafraid to correct servers on the floor if their tableside manner is off.

“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” says Appelgren, riffing on Sinatra. “This place is demanding and the expectation is high. You need to be prepared.”

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