TAMPA (CW44 News at 10) – 115 years after first opening their doors, the family was forced to temporarily close them due to COVID-19. On Thursday, they reopened their historic restaurant once again.

Florida’s Oldest RestaurantSM:

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.

The Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City

Credit: The Columbia Restaurant Group

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.

As the Prohibition movement gained steam, Casimiro Sr. faced a bitter dilemma. He could lose his saloon or find a new use for the Columbia. He did not have to look far. Manuel Garcia, who owned La Fonda, the restaurant next door, agreed in 1919 to join him and retain the name “Columbia.” The size of the Columbia doubled overnight. Also in 1919, his son, Casimiro Hernandez Jr., joined the business. Following the death of Casimiro Sr. in 1929, 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 in 1935, 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 1950s. 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 through 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.