Flavors of Spain
For the owner of Floridas oldest Spanish restaurant, work is not a job; it's a love affair.
Story by EBONY BOSCH
During the Great Depression, Richard Gonzmart’s grandfather prepared for the worst after the Columbia Restaurant earned a meager $12 for one day’s work.
“He told his best friend that he would shut the doors if he had another day like that,” Richard recalls. “His friend came in the next day with his life savings of about $500 and gave it to my grandfather, saying he believed in his effort.”
His grandfather didn’t accept the money, Richard says, but he took the offer as encouragement to fight through the hardships.
This commitment remains with Richard today as he seeks to maintain the longevity of Florida’s oldest – and the country’s largest – Spanish restaurant.
“It’s not a business; it’s a love affair with a city and with an industry,” says Richard, CEO and fourth-generation president of the Tampa company. “You must be passionate about what you choose to do and have confidence in yourself and in the product you sell.”
Passion for the Columbia brings Richard to Spain three to five times a year, where he seeks out the best olives and olive oils the region offers. He also chooses to use ingredients such as whole milk and fresh vegetables rather than their more economical powdered and canned counterparts.
Among the restaurant’s signature dishes are its Spanish and black bean soups, 1905 salad, paella Valencia and Red Snapper Alicante — cultural comfort foods with a gourmet consciousness.
“As you walk through the front doors of the Columbia, you feel as if you have been transported back in time and to Spain,” Richard says. “It doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
Over the span of a century, the restaurant has seen two world wars and 18 US presidents.
“I’ve been told that the memories taste as good as they did in the early 1940s,” Richard says. “Each generation has been able to survive the changes in the economy.”
The memories created at the Columbia by its founding family and patrons are what have embedded the restaurant as an integral thread in Tampa’s cultural and historical tapestry.
“It is not just a restaurant,” explains Andrea Gonzmart, Richard’s daughter and fifth-generation Columbia employee. “When you walk from room to room, even table to table, there is a story that follows you. Each story combined with the next story is what makes the Columbia what it is today – rich with history and culture.”
Having evolved from a saloon with spittoons to a restaurant offering a fine-dining experience, the Columbia has refined considerably in the span of 100 years. Most recently it underwent a five-year, $6.5 million renovation to celebrate its centennial anniversary. The restaurant, with 15 dining rooms that seat 1,700 guests, now encompasses an entire city block.
“Establish ... a goal beyond what you think you can accomplish,” Richard says, echoing the determination of his grandfather. “When you achieve it, establish another and another. This will teach you to embrace risk and give you the satisfaction of succeeding.”