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COLUMBIA RESTAURANT - FLORIDA’S OLDEST RESTAURANT’S HISTORY

COLUMBIA RESTAURANT
Florida’s Oldest Restaurant’s History

Founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., the Columbia Restaurant is Florida’s oldest restaurant, and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world.

It began in Tampa’s Ybor City, (pronounced EE-bore) as a small 60-seat corner café known for its Cuban coffee and authentic Cuban sandwiches, frequented by the local cigar workers. Casimiro Sr. took over the restaurant next door in 1919 and converted it into an additional dining room. His son, Casimiro Jr. also joined the business. Following the death of Casimiro Sr. in 1930, Casimiro Jr. took over ownership and operation of the restaurant.

Casimiro Jr. aspired to take the Columbia beyond its humble beginnings and envisioned an elegant dining room with music and dancing, the likes of which were unheard of in this part of the country at the time. During the height of the Depression, he took a chance by building the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa, complete with an elevated dance floor. He named it the Don Quixote Room.

Casimiro Jr. and his wife, Carmen, had one child, Adela Hernandez Gonzmart. Adela was a concert pianist who was trained at the Juilliard School of Music. In 1946, Adela married Cesar Gonzmart, a concert violinist. They traveled throughout the United States while Cesar performed in famous supper clubs during the early 1950’s. In 1953, Adela’s father, Casimiro Jr., was in failing health, so they returned to Tampa. They divided the business duties of operating the restaurant and raising their two sons, Casey and Richard.

The family persevered in keeping the restaurant open during the late 1950s and all thorough the 1960s when Ybor City was dying. Many of the row houses that once housed the cigar workers had decayed into slums. Urban renewal cut the heart from the Latin Quarter. More families moved out. Businesses closed. Cesar Gonzmart realized they had to do something to bring people back to Ybor City.

Cesar had a flair for the artistic, and upon taking over direction of the restaurant, he built the Siboney Room in 1956. Some of the top Latin talent during that era came to perform in this large showroom. Who would have thought that world class entertainment could be found at a restaurant? Columbia survived those lean years and came back stronger than ever. The entertainment tradition continues today at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, where Spanish flamenco dancers perform every night except Sunday.

During Cesar Gonzmart’s reign, the Columbia also expanded to other locations in Florida. In 1959, Columbia Restaurant opened on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, and in 2009 the Gonzmart family celebrated its 50th Anniversary. It is now Sarasota’s oldest restaurant.

Cesar and Adela’s sons, Richard and Casey, began working at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City when each turned 12-years old. They started off with receiving merchandise in the restaurant & stocking shelves, and worked their way through all the different cooking stations within the kitchen.

Casey’s formal education in hotel and restaurant administration continued at the Ecole Hoteliere in Lausanne, Switzerland, and at La Escuela Sidical de Hosteleria in Madrid, Spain. He apprenticed at the Ledoyen Restaurant in Paris, France, and the Inter-Continental Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland.

Richard graduated high school from Tampa’s Jesuit High School in 1971 and continued at the University of Denver School of Hotel and Restaurant Management and attended the University of Madrid, Escuela de Hosteleria.

Both Casey and Richard returned to Columbia Restaurant upon completion of their education and worked in the family business with their father. Casey managed the Sarasota location for many years. Richard and Casey, along with their father, opened additional Columbia Restaurants. In 1983 they opened a Columbia Restaurant in St. Augustine’s Historic district, and Richard managed this location for two years. The business continued to grow, and in 1989 they opened at Sand Key, and in Central Florida’s town of Celebration in 1997. In 2009 The Columbia Café on the Riverwalk in Tampa at the Tampa History Center opened. And in May 2012, the family’s newest venture opened, The Columbia Restaurant Café at Tampa International Airport.

Following Cesar Gonzmart’s death in 1992, his sons, 4th generation brothers Casey and Richard assumed leadership of the Columbia Restaurants. To this day, over 100 years since it first opened, the Columbia remains in the same family. Richard is the CEO/President and Casey serves as the Chairman of the Board. The 5th generation is also involved; Richard’s daughters, Lauren and Andrea work in the corporate office, and Casey’s son, Casey Jr., is the general manager of the Columbia Restaurant Café at Tampa International Airport.

Richard and his wife, Melanie, live in Tampa. Their daughters also live in Tampa. Lauren has four children, twins Michael and Isabella, Maximilian and Alexander, and daughter Andrea has one child, Amelia. Their children represent the 6th generation.

Casey and his wife, Heidi, live in Tampa. Casey has six children who represent the 5th generation, Cassandra, Casey Jr., Jessica, Charlie, Christian and Marlena.

Over the years, Columbia Restaurant has attracted some of the most well known athletes and entertainers from yesteryear to today. From Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter, Lou Piniella, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin, from Liberace to Bruce Springsteen, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Brian Johnson of ACDC, from Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano to Evander Holyfield, from Marilyn Monroe and Liza Minelli to Bo Derek, everyone enjoys the Columbia. Other recent visitors include George Clooney, Stephen King, Bryant Gumbel, Brooke Shields, and Lauren Hutton.

Richard and Casey Gonzmart have completed several rewarding projects, including building a new building in 2001 to house a 5,000+ square foot kitchen in the Ybor City restaurant founded by their great-grandfather in 2001. Florida''s most modern, state-of-the-art kitchen is now in the state’s oldest restaurant. The new kitchen was built in what was a parking lot/delivery area on the south side of the restaurant. The Gonzmart’s made a close to $2 million investment in building the new kitchen to sustain growth at the restaurant and to keep pace with the city''s growth.

The old kitchen space was remodeled and turned into two new dining rooms; the Andalucia and the Familia de Casimiro. These are the first new dining rooms built in the restaurant since 1956. The Familia de Casimiro was named in honor of Richard & Casey’s great-grandfather and the founder of the restaurant, Casimiro Hernandez Sr., and is designed to resemble a Spanish wine cellar, with space for private meetings.

Richard made a special trip to Spain to work with a company to commission the creation of hand-made, hand-painted tiles and custom-made chandeliers made of old wrought iron, and these pieces give the rooms an Old World charm. A board room table was also created, along with a bar. Family heirlooms are also on display.

The Andalucia seats up to 80 people, and the Familia de Casimiro seats up to 30 people. These two new dining rooms add an additional 110 seats to the restaurant, and bring the total number of dining rooms to fifteen, with seating for up to 1,700 people. The restaurant has a grand total of 52,000 square feet, and encompasses an entire city block.

The new kitchen and dining rooms were part of a $6.5 million renovation project that prepared the restaurant for its 100th anniversary in 2005. Other completed projects include new state-of-the-art bathrooms for men and women with toilets that automatically flush, and faucets that automatically turn on and off. Additional finished projects include the renovated Siboney Banquet Room, new wine cellars, and a new, energy efficient air conditioning system.

In 2005, the Gonzmart family proudly celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Columbia Restaurant.

In May 2012, The Gonzmart family opened The Columbia Restaurant Café at Tampa International Airport.

The Columbia in St. Augustine completed $1,100,000 worth of capital improvements in October 2009 that included; the complete renovation of the kitchen, the purchase of all new, state-of-the art energy efficient kitchen equipment, remodeling the CR’s bar and dining area, and the addition of a climate-controlled, 2,200 bottle wine room.

In 2009, the Gonzmart family opened The Columbia Café on the Riverwalk at the Tampa History Center.

Also in 2009, The Gonzmart family celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Columbia in Sarasota on St. Armands Circle.

In 2006, the Gonzmart family built a brand new, state-of-the-art kitchen in the Columbia Sarasota on St. Armands Circle.

The Columbia Restaurant was founded in 1905 and is Florida’s Oldest Restaurant. Locations include the flagship restaurant in Tampa’s Historic Ybor City, additional locations include St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, the Historic District in St. Augustine, Sand Key on Clearwater Beach, Central Florida''s town of Celebration, the Columbia Café on the Riverwalk in Tampa and the Columbia Restaurant Café at Tampa International Airport. All Columbia locations are owned and operated by 4th and 5th generation members of the founding family; except for Columbia Restaurant Cafe at Tampa International Airport which is operated in partnership with HMSHost. Please see www.columbiarestaurant.com for more information.


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