A Taste of Tampa

By staff May 1, 2002

A thousand years from now Tampa will be described by archaeologists as a "large commercial center of no particular interest." I can't imagine anyone going there for a weekend getaway. Aside from Busch Gardens (which is, granted, a wonderful amusement park) and attending various sporting events, there isn't much to do. The town's biggest attraction is its proximity to other places, places you really want to go-Orlando, Clearwater, Sarasota.

Yet every now and then you find yourself in Tampa. You may be having a terrible fight with your spouse and have to get away for a day or two and brood in some anonymous motel room. Tampa is good for that sort of thing. Or maybe you're involved in some federal court case and have to give a deposition. Or maybe you're stuck there due to some missed connection at Tampa International Airport. Yes, sooner or later everyone ends up in Tampa.

And while you're there it's good to know that Tampa has two of the best restaurants in Florida. They are a little weird, I grant you, but they combine longevity, ambience, and good food in such a way that they have become part of Florida history.

The first is the Columbia. True, there are other branches (Sarasota, St. Pete, Orlando) but they all pale in comparison to the original, which occupies a whole city block in Ybor City. The architectural style is Hollywood Spanish Colonial, circa 1930. There are tiles everywhere, plus arches with columns, patios and dark wood paneling. This is the sort of building that doesn't really exist in the United States; even in San Juan it would turn heads.

I recently had lunch there and was placed in the balcony, which overlooks a glass-covered patio. It sounds pretty, but that wasn't really the effect; there was something old-fashioned and even a little gloomy about the place. Yellow light filtered in and illuminated the yellow rice; there was too much brown everywhere. Ybor City, by the way, is the capital of the color brown; with all due respect to this famous historic district, I must say that it has the ugliest color scheme of any place I've ever been.

But all this is redeemed by the food. It manages to be both authentic and delicious. I always start with the black bean soup, which is very thick and served over rice, with chopped onions liberally sprinkled on top. It tastes even better, I've discovered, if you add a little vinegar. If I'm really hungry, I order the shrimp al ajillo also; it's an appetizer (or "tapas") of grilled shrimp in a very powerful garlic sauce. It is so strong that part of you doesn't want to eat it, but you do anyway. This brings up another point that is crucial when it comes to dining at the Columbia-bring breath mints.

Perhaps the biggest bad-breath producer is the legendary 1905 salad: lettuce, tomatoes, strips of ham and cheese, and green olives, all saturated in a thick garlic dressing. It's a meal in itself, but there too many good things on the menu to limit yourself to a salad, even a spectacular one. So order it as a side with your entrée.

The food is perhaps best described as old-fashioned Spanish Caribbean. There are no newfangled twists and turns, nothing nouvelle, just classic cooking. The roast pork Cuban style is flaky and juicy, all the shrimp dishes are superb, and the waiter brings those hot Cuban rolls, wrapped in paper. If you've spent a lot of time in Latin America you recognize the Columbia immediately for what it is -the real thing. You could be dinning in Managua. Plus, it's very informal and quite well-priced.

If the Columbia justifies Ybor City, then Bern's Steak House justifies Tampa. It is one of the strangest restaurants in the United States, with some things good and some bad; but there is nothing tentative going on here. Bern's takes the words "steak house," deconstructs them and puts them back together in an experience that can border on the spooky.

First of all, it's in a giant windowless building, totally unadorned and rather ugly. But once you enter, things change dramatically. There's a two-story lobby often said to resemble the entrance to a bordello: red wallpaper, paintings in elaborate gold frames, various candelabra and chandeliers. But as dramatic as the space is, you sense that there is something "off." It's like walking into a film noir.

Like the Columbia, Bern's is a gigantic space split up into many smaller ones. The dining rooms do not match the drama of the lobby and bar, and the tables seem crammed in. The feeling is not as luxurious as one would hope. When I had dinner there recently, I sat in the Rhone Room, which had a photomural of the Rhone River taken about 1965 and not aging well. My fellow diners reflected the confusing atmosphere. On one side was a table of drunken yuppies, and on the other side was a very formally dressed older couple who kept ordering the most expensive champagne and caviar.

But of course the real test of a steakhouse is the steak, and here I'd give Bern's a B plus. It's not the best I've ever had but it is a cut above most. It should be; the menu describes all possible permutations, then you and your waiter have an in-depth conversation about exactly what's going to happen. Doctors should plan operations as carefully as they plan steaks at Bern's. The meat's most distinctive feature was a crinkly crust around the fat. You also get soup (onion or vichysoisse), a forgettable salad, some carrots soaked in liquor and a passable baked potato.

After dinner but before dessert you are offered a tour of the place, and by all means take it-once. The kitchen is about what you would expect, but the wine cellar is a bit of a shock. Vincent Price could film a movie here. First of all, it's the biggest wine cellar of any restaurant in the world, nice and chilly, dark and maze-like, the bottles covered with dust. And this is only part of Bern's wine holdings; there are other buildings scattered throughout the neighborhood, and the collection is said to be worth $30-40 million dollars. I got a sniff of something from 1814 and I must say, it was quite intriguing. Very fruity.

Bern's saves the best (or the worst) for last. It is the custom to go upstairs for dessert, where they have an endless maze of little rooms. An empty one is found for you and your party. This sounds nice but it doesn't quite work; the tiny rooms are not very comfortable and they're too brightly lit. And who wants to be locked with your boss in a little tiny room, as happened to me.

When you finally exit Bern's it's like returning to earth. The door closes and you're in a parking lot in Tampa, Florida, in the middle of the night. Fortunately, one of Tampa's claims to fame is a sleazy and corrupt nightlife. One of its strip clubs, the Mons Venus, is world famous for setting new heights- or lows-in the industry. And it is not alone. The whole area around Dale Mabry teems with something for every taste.

And there I am, with my goody-two-shoes boss in tow. Boy, have I learned my lesson about having dinner in Tampa-bring two cars.

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