On a recent Saturday, between running real estate related errands on Longboat and St. Armands Key, Jill and I treated ourselves to lunch at this landmark establishment on “The Circle”, as St. Armands Circle is known to the locals. It’s my belief that you can’t actually qualify for a Sarasota “local’s” license if you haven’t eaten at The Columbia. This is, without argument, the best people watching restaurant in town! There are no shortage of tables looking out onto St. Armands Circle — even the interior tables provide strategic views of this most notable shopping and dining mecca, with over 130 shops, restaurants and stores known to pamper visitors from around the world.
While, by our definition, an A-Lister is an establishment that has been providing excellent food and service for a minimum of 10 years, then the Columbia is an A-Lister squared. First established in Ybor City in 1905, our local “Gem of a Spanish Restaurant” has been in operation since 1959! One visit and you’ll know why.
So, on to the food. . . Between Jill and I, it’s an unspoken understanding that we’ll be sharing one of The Columbia’s famous “1905 Salads”, an award-winning salad that won honors in USA Today’s “One of Ten Great Places to Make a Meal Out of a Salad”. The 1905 Salad is always our first choice, even if one of us plans to make a concentrated effort to order something different ahead of time. I don’t want to sound like we’re in a rut, but for us not to order a 1905 Salad is just hopeless! If we see even one other table enjoying the 1905 Salad being prepared to order table-side, we’re back to ordering what makes us happy – otherwise we’d feel like we missed out! The 1905 Salad absolutely makes our taste buds sing, with crisp iceberg lettuce, julienne ham, Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese, a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce and The Columbia’s famous garlic dressing. (And since the 1905 features a garlic dressing, doesn’t it make sense that that we both share a large order!)
As a prelude to enjoying our salads, we each receive a generous piece of piping hot self-described “Tampa bread”. Similar to Cuban bread, the Columbia’s version is both crispy and flaky on the outside, with a light-as-air soft center. This bread is almost worth the trip on its own! Each order comes wrapped in parchment paper where it stays warm and toasty until you tear or cut it apart, drench it in butter or use it to soak up any remaining salad dressing or sauces.
As is our wont to do with the plethora of mouth-watering selections available on The Columbia’s menu, we decide to share a couple of items from the tapas section. Each us picks our first choice and then we share — which is the best thing about the portion sizes on a tapas menu. Jill decides to order the Empanadas de Picadillo, stuffed with spiced ground beef, garlic (I’m picking up on a theme here), tomato, onions, raisins and olives and served with roasted corn and black bean salsa. Wrapped in a turnover like pasty that’s crunchy and flaky (without a hint of greasy flavor that can be common in the street version of the Empanada), we’re happy the order came with two empanadas, a nicely-sized order of what can only be described as classic comfort food in many parts of the world.
Once I see the description for the Stuffed Piquillo Peppers, also a tapas entree, I’m more than a little excited about tasting it. Piquillo peppers hail from the Basque region of Navarra, Spain, and they’re a lovely pepper, one most everyone can enjoy. With just a hint of heat, the firm body of the Piquillo holds up to the mushroom, chorizo sausage and Serrano ham filling of this delicious dish. Baked in an almond pepper (yum) sauce, the Piquillo Peppers are then topped with Manchego cheese. Need I read any more of the menu? Round it all out with a cold glass of thier popular house-made sangria, a freshly made Mojito or one of a number of their Latin inspired cervezas, and our casual lunch felt like a vacation, as well it should.
The Columbia certainly deserves the accolades its received over the years, not only for their food, and impeccable service, but the relaxing atmosphere, colorful tables and beautiful pottery serving pieces. So popular are The Columbia’s sangria pitchers and serving plates that the Gonzmart family opened a boutique next to the restaurant where folks can buy one of their classic heritage inspired pottery pieces to enjoy at home. Or maybe Jill won’t mind if I pick up a hand rolled cigar from the cigar room?
Truly, if you’ve never been to The Columbia, you must. If you haven’t been for a while, please . . . treat yourself and someone special to a “stay-cation” here in one of the most popular destinations of our tropical paradise.