Tampa Bay’s cuisine is just as unique and rich as its culture. Sip on lavish libations at the many waterfront bistros and bars. Take a bite into some culinary diversity. Discover fine dining or farm-to-table restaurants and enjoy fresh seafood and authentic Spanish dishes.
Here is a look at some restaurants I experienced.
THE COLUMBIA RESTAURANT: When in Tampa, you must experience Florida’s oldest restaurant and in fact the largest Spanish dining establishment in the world. The Columbia Restaurant (www.columbiarestaurant.com) was founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr. It began in Tampa’s Ybor City, (pronounced EE-bore) as a small 60-seat corner cafe known for its Cuban coffee and authentic Cuban sandwiches, frequented by the local cigar workers.
The original Ybor City location is nothing short than magnificent. Additional Columbia locations include St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, the Historic District in St. Augustine, Sand Key on Clearwater Beach, Central Florida’s town of Celebration, Columbia Café on the Riverwalk in Tampa and Columbia Restaurant Café at Tampa International Airport. All Columbia locations are owned and operated by fourth and fifth generation members of the founding family except for the airport, which is operated in partnership with HMSHost.
To this day, over 110 years since it first opened, the Columbia remains in the same family. Richard Gonzmart is the CEO/President and his brother Casey serves as the Chairman of the Board. The fifth generation is also involved; Richard’s daughters, Lauren and Andrea, and Casey’s son, Casey Jr., work in the corporate office. Lauren has four children, twins Michael and Isabella, Maximilian and Alexander, and daughter Andrea has one child, Amelia. Their children represent the sixth generation.
Over the years, Columbia Restaurant has attracted some of the most well-known athletes and entertainers from yesteryear to today.
Richard and Casey Gonzmart have completed several rewarding projects. This included a 5,000 plus square foot $2 million kitchen in the Ybor City restaurant in what was a parking lot/delivery area on the south side of the restaurant.
The old kitchen space was remodeled and turned into two new dining rooms; the Andalucia and the Familia de Casimiro. These were the first new dining rooms built in the restaurant since 1956. The Familia de Casimiro was designed to resemble a Spanish wine cellar, with space for private meetings.
The Andalucia seats up to 80 people, and the Familia de Casimiro up to 30. These two new dining rooms made for an additional 110 seats and brought the total number of dining rooms to 15, 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.
Reservations are accepted. There is a children’s menu and valet parking Casual attire is fine, but sleeveless shirts on men are not permitted. The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner. Takeout is available on all lunch and dinner menu items.
Some of the menu favorites include Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad,® Spanish Bean Soup, The Original Cuban Sandwich, a variety of Tapas, Paella, Red Snapper “Alicante,” Pompano en Papillot, Roast Pork “A la Cubana,” Chicken and Yellow Rice “Valenciana,” Filet Mignon “Chacho,” Café con Leche and Flan. A gluten-free menu is available.
Winner of Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence, every year since 2004, for an outstanding collection of Spanish wines (more than 1,056 wines, inventory exceeds 50,000 bottles).
There is always entertainment at the Ybor City location, with Flamenco and Spanish classical dance performances nightly ($6 per person cover charge). There are no shows on Sunday, a live jazz band Tuesday through Saturday nights, live music every Friday and Saturday night in the Tapas Bar and at the Cafe at the Tampa Bay History Center on the Tampa Riverwalk, live music every Friday and Saturday night.
When we arrived for dinner we took advantage of the valet parking and got in line to see the hostess. We were escorted to our table and handed a menu which necessitated a lot of study on our part. It had been 23 years since my last visit to this restaurant and it remains a fabulous dining experience.
After some white sangria was brought to the table, the three of us agreed to share some items from the menu starting with the Tapas (pronounced TAH-pahs) section. These are popular throughout Spain in bars and restaurants. Tapas usually accompany a glass of sherry or other aperitifs. Simply put, they are appetizers. Together they can form an entire meal, ranging from simple items such as olives or croquettes to more elaborate preparations such as mussels in a spicy sauce. We opted for the tapeo sampler, which allowed us to make three choices. Ours were: Empanadas de Picadillo (spiced ground beef, garlic, tomato, onions, raisins and olives, wrapped in two pastry turnovers); Croquetas de Langosta (two large croquettes made with Maine lobster meat, blended into a delicate roux, breaded with Cuban bread crumbs, served with a lobster sauce); and Scallops “Casimiro” (Colossal fresh scallops baked in a clay casserole with lemon butter and topped with seasoned bread crumbs and white wine). It arrived on a tower of three plates.
We moved on to share two main courses. The Ropa Vieja was originally introduced to Cuba by Spanish sailors. The name means “old clothes” because the choice beef is shredded, sautéed and simmered with onions, green peppers and tomatoes. Served with platanos and white rice we thoroughly enjoyed this dish. The same goes for the baked stuffed grouper. This featured a boneless fillet of red grouper stuffed with crabmeat and a tropical passion fruit butter sauce. Gently baked, it was served with yellow rice and fresh vegetables.
When it came time to have dessert, we had just enough room to share the Churros “Tres Amigos” Golden brown Spanish pastry, dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with three sauces of rich warm chocolate, caramel and guava. It was a terrific meal and let me add that this represents a very affordable choice for families.
The entrance to the restaurant and to the different rooms are handicapped accessible.
RUTH’S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE: Ruth’s Chris Steak House locations can be found across the United States and elsewhere around the world. While in Tampa, we dined at the 350- seat 1700 North Westshore Blvd. location in what would mark my long awaited first review of this very famous restaurant chain.
More than 50 years ago, the “First Lady of Steak,” Ruth Fertel, bought a local steak house in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was called Chris Steak House. She had never planned to expand, but after a fierce kitchen fire decimated the property she was forced to relocate in order to stay in business. Within 10 days she had the restaurant up and running. But the Chris Steak House name was not allowed to move with it. With little time and a mischievous smile, Ruth added her own name to the sign, making it “Ruth’s Chris Steak House.” Later Ruth admitted the name was strange, but she managed to work around it.
In 1965, Fertel was a single mom trying to earn enough to send her two sons to college. She worked every job at the restaurant: from butchering and broiling steak, to waiting tables, keeping the books and washing the dishes. Fertel’s hard work paid off, and her restaurant soon became the most popular steak house in New Orleans.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House began with a team of working mothers, hired by Fertel for their hardworking attitudes and dedication to doing things right. Having established a “this is how it’s done” tradition – passion, hard work and business savvy – Ruth’s Chris Steak House began to grow. In the years that followed, Ruth’s Chris Steak House brought its signature sizzle to more than 150 company and franchised owned locations in the U.S and internationally. It sure has stood the test of time; more than 120 employees have been with the company nearly 20 years or more.
Ruth passed away in 2002, but her legacy of community, philanthropy, and commitment to serving only the best lives on. What started as one restaurant has grown into the largest collection of upscale steak houses in the world. Now guests routinely savor the sizzle of USDA prime steak and genuine hospitality across the globe.
“Ruth had a recipe for everything from preparing the best steak of your life to simply living right,” said Mike O’Donnell, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Inc. “She knew the value of hard work and the true meaning of hospitality.”
Jim Martin, the general manager of the Tampa location, gave us a warm greeting and proudly told some stories about his nearly 30 years with the company. He also shared a few personal anecdotes of his memories of Ruth Fertel, whom he had the pleasure of interacting with on many occasions.
At Ruth’s Chris, your last bite is just as good as your first. Their perfected broiling method and seasoning techniques ensure each cut of USDA Prime beef they serve arrives cooked to perfection and sizzling on a 500 degree plate. The menu includes seafood, appetizers, sides and desserts.
At Ruth’s Chris, there’s more to their bar than world-class wines. They specialize in handcrafted cocktails, from vintage classics to their very own house specialties. All made with fresh-squeezed juices, premium spirits and the perfect finishing touches, I started the evening off with a sweet and tasty cosmopolitan.
For dinner let us recommend the Porterhouse steak for two – 40 ounces of prime beef with the rich flavor of a strip and the tenderness of a filet. This was more than enough for our party of three, with some roasted cremini mushrooms and fingerling potatoes on the side. While we each had our eyes on one of the many excellent soups and salads as a pre-meal selection, instead we agreed to share a small (but it is actually quite large) chilled seafood tower – Maine lobster, king crab legs and knuckles, colossal lump crab meat and jumbo cocktail shrimp served with both Sriracha-lime seafood and cocktail sauces.
When it came to dessert, our waiter Wayne suggested we go with the crème brulee and we did so with a few spoons. Wayne was right on the mark.
Ruth’s Chris does offer a gluten-free menu. The items available are either gluten-free as prepared, or are modified to be gluten-free. If you have an allergy or dietary concern, contact the restaurant before your reservation time or ask to speak with a manager or chef upon arrival. They do offer vegetarian options.
To learn more about the legend of Ruth Fertel and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, visit RuthsChris.com.
OYSTERCATCHERS: When on holiday we always try to find the best seafood restaurant in town. In Tampa, that would be Oystercatchers (www.oystercatchersrestaurant.com) at the Grand Hyatt at 2900 Bayport Drive. To get there you drive down a winding road approaching the illuminated circle drive, flanked by palm trees and bright flowerbeds. There is valet parking.
As you enter the restaurant through the lounge, you are taken back by the spectacular panoramic view of Old Tampa Bay. With its innovative cocktails and contemporary furniture, the lounge, outside patio and lower bay-level deck provide a comfortable yet chic hotspot for locals and visitors alike. The visually stimulating water views and sunsets provide a unique environment to enjoy feature wines and appetizers. As for the menu, it highlights an array of the freshest, wild and line caught fish available, organic produce and seafood specialties with a unique and contemporary flair.
We indulged in the flavorful creations of Chef de Cuisine Shane Clarke, who artfully blends the freshest catch with innovative touches, as only one born to the water can do.
Our server, Donald, has been part of the Oystercatchers staff for well over 20 years and he guided us excellently. General Manager Justin Beach and Chef Clarke actually greeted us at the start of the evening with a special sampling of their scallops. They were so delicious we knew we had to include this as part of our main course.
For our party of three we chose to share a number of dishes and that started with the appetizers: eight splendid oysters, an order of golden calamari fries, an arugula salad and yellowfin tuna (red in color, served medium rare from Florida’s East coast). This was a great combination!
When it came to the main course, we opted to share a two pound lobster. It came to the table completely cut up and easy to dip into the garlic butter. We also added an order of large juicy sea scallops from the Mexican Gulf, perfectly prepared and among the best I have tasted in many years.
For dessert we shared the house specialty, a slice of key lime pie and a piece of sumptuous chocolate cake.
Unquestionably this is the place you should go for seafood in Tampa Bay! It is open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 pm to 10 pm and Sunday from 6 pm to 9 pm. A popular brunch is served from 10:30 am to 2 pm Sundays. And you can drop by for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. For more information call (813)
BIZOU BRASSERIE: I had breakfast one morning in one of downtown Tampa’s most iconic and historic buildings, the city’s former federal courthouse. Bizou Brasserie (www.bizoutampa.com) may look formal on the outside, but inside you’ll find a downtown Tampa restaurant to remember in a casual, fun environment. Located within Le Méridien Tampa at 601 N. Florida Avenue, Bizou (meaning “kiss” in French) is just the place to kick off a great evening at a restaurant in downtown Tampa or wind down after a night on the town. Here you’ll find a comfortable, relaxed setting for all kinds of occasions including before or after a special evening downtown visiting the museum, Tampa Theatre or a performance at the Straz Center. The breakfast was pretty good, some corned beef hash with potatoes, poached eggs and a choice of toast.
BERN’S FOR DESSERT: We had dined at the famous Bern’s Steak House (www.bernsteakhouse.com) in Tampa a year earlier. It was great to learn about the history. Founder Bern Laxer was born to a Romanian mother and Polish father on the Lower East Side of New York in 1923, and grew up in the Bronx. After serving in World War II, he returned to New York where he pursued a degree in advertising from New York University. He met his wife Gert in a copywriting class and they married in 1950. They ought a small luncheonette in 1953 which would grow into Bern’s.
We decided to go to Bern’s after our own dinner one night and back inside the world famous Harry Waugh Dessert Room. Built in 1985 using redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms, guests get to enjoy nearly 50 desserts, wines, ports, sherries, and madeiras. This represents a separate sitting. All desserts – ice creams, sherbets, pies, pastries, hot fudge, whipped cream, breads and crackers – are made by Bern’s with the freshest and best ingredients available. Make sure you have a reservation or prepare to wait a long time for a table.
In the end one member of our party opted for a specialty drink, a Butterscotch Bern’s (vanilla ice cream with butterscotch liqueur and other special liqueurs) as well as two outstanding desserts: the s’mores cheesecake (chocolate cheesecake, graham cracker crust and toasted vanilla marshmallow crème) and a piece of Granny Smith Apple Pie (caramelized apple filling wrapped in a sweet buttery dough and served with a caramel sauce and cinnamon ice cream).
If you are in the area of 1208 S. Howard Street then make a reservation by calling 813-251-2421. You can valet park for $5.Bern’s is fully wheelchair accessible. There are elevators which bring you to each level of the restaurant.