Along busy 21st Street in Tampa's Ybor City, an artist meticulously restores the Columbia's heritage.

By Tom Scherberger

Tampa's historic Columbia Restaurant would not be what it is without its tiles: thousands of them, hand-painted terra cotta, adorning the walls inside and out. "They speak volumes about who we are," says fourth-generation restaurant president Richard Gonzmart. "When people think the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa, I want them to think Spain."

The tiles not only set a mood. They tell a story of the Columbia itself, Florida's oldest restaurant, founded in 1905 in Tampa's historic Ybor City neighborhood. They mark virtually every era of a restaurant that grew from a humble café to an honored institution.

For Gonzmart, the tiles are both works of art and a family legacy he's intent on preserving, which is why for the last two or three years along busy 21st Street, artist Judith Villavisanis has bent over a palette of paint and is meticulously restoring tiles made in Spain in the 1930s.

"That's history," Gonzmart says as he walks past the work in progress. "You don't go disposing of the Mona Lisa just because it's old."

He learned that the hard way.

Gonzmart still regrets the wall of tiles destroyed during a renovation of the restaurant's two original dining rooms. They told the story of Don Quixote in hand-painted words and pictures. Dozens of tiles still ring part of the room, but the story ends before its finished.

Don Quixote was an apt symbol for Gonzmart's grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez Jr. In 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression, Hernandez went into debt to expand the restaurant his father founded. The Don Quixote Room was Tampa's first air-conditioned dining room – "or, as it was then known, refrigerated room," Gonzmart says – and Hernandez's risky bid for fine Florida dining. The stakes were so high, the risks so great, that Hernandez told his wife he would have to shoot himself if it failed.

It was an instant success. There was music and dancing and tuxedoed waiters serving paella and pompano beneath a giant crystal chandelier. It offered Tampa a respite from the gloom of the times and put the Columbia on the culinary map.

It remains one of the most elegant dining rooms in Florida, with its soaring ceiling, white table cloths and servers still sporting tuxedoes.

And it was the first of many additions and renovations. Today, the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa boasts 15 dining rooms and 1,700 seats across a full city block. It is a member of Florida Trend magazine's Golden Spoon Hall of Fame, was named as one of 50 All-American Icons by Nation's Restaurant News. Babe Ruth dined there (and was kicked out once for drunkenness, only to send an autographed baseball bat the next day as an apology).

The entire front of the restaurant along Seventh Avenue in Ybor City is covered in colorful history. A large mural shows the arrival of Columbus to the New World, signed and dated (May 4, 1982) by Sando, an Ybor City artist with a studio across the street.

Inside, a mural showing Don Quixote fighting a windmill was originally shown at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Gonzmart's favorite, however, is a small abstract piece. "I really like that one, I don't know why,” Gonzmart says, standing back to admire it. "It just reminds me of Matisse."

The tiles Villavisanis is restoring were originally installed nearly 40 years ago by Gonzmart's late father, Cesar. They were made in Sevilla, Spain, in the 1930s and found unused in a storeroom of Los Novedades, another Ybor City landmark restaurant that Cesar Gonzmart purchased in 1970.

Villavisanis, a Tampa native whose dad grew up in Ybor City, seems to have an affinity for the style of the Spanish painters who came before her. She's an old hand: In the 1980s, she worked with Richard Sorrentino, an Ybor City artist who painted many of the colorful tiles on the front of the restaurant. She has worked off and on for two or three years restoring the Columbia's tiles inside and out.

"We could not find tiles to duplicate these," she says. "They don't make them."

While she is still finishing the restoration work, she has also completed her most recent project, painting the Hernandez/Gonzmart family tree.

When You Go...

Tours of the restaurant are available daily. Just ask the hostess or your server.

2117 East Seventh Ave., Tampa
Telephone: 813-248-4961
Monday - Thursday, 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Friday - Saturday, 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Sunday, noon - 9 p.m.
Open 365 days of the year
Serving lunch and dinner daily