ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s a trademark of The Sunshine State, but to the family that laid its foundation, it’s so much more.
Standing since 1905, The Columbia Restaurant holds strong to its Spanish heritage with every dish that is served, and every Flamenco performance that hits the stage.
The original restaurant in Tampa’s Ybor City Historic District is rooted in traditions and still thriving today through the legacy of Adela Hernandez Gonzmart.
“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t walk through that restaurant, think of my grandmother, and get chills,” said Andrea Gonzmart, 5th generation owner at The Columbia Restaurant.
An icon of her time, Adela ran The Columbia Restaurant with her husband Cesar Gonzmart in the 1950′s, and was a tireless advocate for the arts, and Hispanic heritage.
“You can still wander the halls of The Columbia, hear music and see dancers. We’ve definitely kept that alive,” said Gonzmart.
Gonzmart was a concert pianist who trained at the Juilliard School of Music, a co-founder of the Latino Scholarship Fund at the University of South Florida, and so much more.
Music and dance are two elements that still remain at the restaurant’s core.
The Columbia Restaurant has been the home for entertainment, especially flamenco dancing for decades.
“When I was a little girl I used to go on Friday and Saturday nights with my grandmother,” said Gonzmart. “We’d watch the Flamenco show, watch my grandfather perform, it was just something that was always there, and it was so important for me to preserve that.”
The Flamenco dancers take to the stage six nights a week. The troupe has evolved tremendously throughout the years.
“Before I came along, the dance troupe at The Columbia all came from San Antonio, Texas,” said Maria Esparza the dance director at The Columbia Restaurant. “We’re not in Spain, New York City, or California. We’re in Tampa, Florida, so finding good professional Flamenco dancers locally was really hard at the time.”
Now, Esparza says throughout the years she’s been able to foster local talent by teaching flamenco in Tampa.
Esparza said the legacy of The Columbia Restaurant is not only felt in Florida, but around the world.
“To this day when I go to visit Spain where my mother is from, I socialize with other Flamenco dancers. There are some from generations back in the day, that say ‘Oh I know of The Columbia, I used to work there.’ That’s really amazing,” she said.
Carrying on traditions is certainly something the Gonzmart family has mastered -- and when it comes to the food, it’s no different.
Gonzmart said many of the restaurant’s staples that have been around from the start like picadillo, ropa vieja, roast pork, boliche, are still on the menu today.
“We’re always trying to improve things and bring in new dishes, but staying true to our classic roots,” she said.
To mark its 115th anniversary last year, The Columbia Restaurant released a special edition anniversary cookbook recounting Adela Gonzmart’s iconic recipes.
“When I’m reading the words she wrote, I’m basically listening to my grandmother which is so neat,” Gonzmart said. “She was known for leaving some things out so nothing ever tasted just like hers, so that’s why I always make my little notes to try and get it just right.”
The restaurant’s success hasn’t come without obstacles along the way. Fighting through the urbanization of Ybor City in the 1960′s that cut through the Latin Quarter, to making it out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Columbia Restaurant has persevered.
“Every day I think ‘what can I do to try to be more like my grandmother?’” said Gonzmart. “She was so ahead of her times being a businesswoman and a mom. She really mastered being that ‘superwoman’ that working moms have to be.”
Adela Gonzmart’s long list of accomplishments and infectious personality, landed her the name “The Queen of Ybor City.” She also became a “Florida Women’s Hall of Fame” inductee in 2018.
“Back when she was alive being Hispanic was more of a minority, and now we’ve come so far,” said Gonzmart. “I know she would be beaming with joy, no doubt.”