Now that the seasonal visitors have had their fill of the Columbia Restaurant, it's time for you and me to reclaim this St. Armands institution, prized for a premier comfort-food lunch of a Cuban sandwich and the 1905 salad, or the black bean soup and the sandwich, or the salad and the garbanzo bean and sausage soup. Decisions, decisions.
This restaurant, which exudes the maximum of Old World ambience, offers a wide-ranging menu of traditional Spanish and Cuban favorites, many quite fancy in their presentation and complicated in the cooking, such as two versions of paella, the red snapper Alicante or the Columbia's famous pompano en papillot, which is fish baked in a bag. But for a soul-satisfying lunch it's hard to surpass the simple joys of soup, salad or the Cuban sandwich served up Columbia-style.
The 1905 salad commemorates the year that Casimiro Hernandez Sr. opened his Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, Tampa. In years following, after sons-in-law came to the family business, the Gonzmart name became prominent. Today there are seven Columbias throughout the state; the St. Armands one was the second to come online, in 1959. At the helm today are Richard and Casey Gonzmart of the fourth generation.
The 1905 salad is so central to this restaurant that it's trademarked. The garlic-charged chopped mélange includes iceberg lettuce, strips of ham, tomato, olives, Swiss cheese and grated Romano cheese. It's assembled and dressed (and, oh, that dressing!) tableside by a courtly server in formal attire. The servers are so comfortable in this art that their amazing dexterity seems playful and offhand.
There are four soup choices, but the two you want to choose between at lunch are the vegetarian black bean and white rice (which you can enhance with a little clump of chopped white onion) or the Spanish bean, made with garbanzo beans, chunks of potato, chorizo sausage and smoked ham along with savory spices simmered in a ham/chicken broth. You get a cup of either when you order a combination plate. The Cuban sandwich is composed of smoked ham, pork, salami, mustard and dill pickle on hot, fresh and crusty Cuban bread that comes to the table wrapped in butcher paper.
The combination of the soup/salad or Cuban sandwich/soup comes to $7.95, making it one of the best deals in town for both quality and earthy good taste. If you choose another kind of sandwich or an entrée you can have the 1905 salad for an additional $3.95. If you want just a big plate of the salad (served with Cuban bread), that will be $7.95 with turkey and $9.95 with shrimp. A cup of soup is $3.95, with a bowl a dollar more. A Cuban sandwich solo is $6.95.
A lot of the family recipes that appear on the lunch and dinner menus used to be guarded secrets, but today the Gonzmarts share their culinary wealth with home cooks. You can buy the official Columbia Restaurant cookbook with 178 recipes for $24.95 in the gift shop that connects to the restaurant. So next year when visitors once again take over the Columbia for six months, you can concoct soup and salad for lunch in your own kitchen. But you're going to miss that wonderful wait-staff.
The Columbia Restaurant
411 St. Armands Circle
Lunch and dinner, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-10.
Reservations accepted and necessary during season
Street parking or valet