So I’ve been running around over the past week or so trying to knock junk off my to-go/to-do/to-see list before leaving the Tampa Bay area. Ya know, I need to be able to say I had a well-rounded experience… cause I’m is a well-rounded kind of person and all.
The majority of this aforementioned junk has had something to do with eating. Fancy that.
Of course, I’ve covered a hearty chunk of pretty awesome ground this summer… tore up Ybor City, meandered through Tarpon Springs, dappled in downtown St. Pete, played around SOHO a bit, kicked it at the beach. Naturally, had to hit up all the tourist shtuff: fish, flowers, art, shopping …and then, there was Dali.
I’d love to tell you all about it in excruciating detail, but that could easily turn to one of those awkward situations where you ask how someone’s trip went and they break out 700 pics of the same statue… and you’re just like, uh okay….
Yeah, we’re not trying to go there. Let’s just grab coffee one day and I’ll tell you about everything, compact version. It’ll be great. We’ll order pastries too.
But here we have a couple of the last big fat check-marks from the list that I’d like to share with the class…
First being my final visit to the Columbia restaurant.
Founded in 1905, the Columbia is Florida’s oldest restaurant as well as the world’s largest Spanish restaurant. And might I say, she truly is magnificent. If you ever find yourself in the area… you best pay her a visit.
Naturally, the restaurant possesses a long and intriguing history that you might totally enjoy looking into. But if you do actually dine in at the “gem of Spanish restaurants,” I recommend you ask your waiter for some background on the place… they tend to give a better story and include any scandalous dirty details the website bio accidentally left out. In fact, on this last trip, my history-buff waiter took me on a full-blown historical tour of the entire restaurant.
Not gonna lie, that was special.
Almost as special as the loaf of warm, crusty Cuban bread straight from the oven he brought. Just for me.
Alright, not really all that special considering every diner gets one upon taking a seat, but still. Like most restaurants in the area who serve this carby work of art, the Columbia buys Cuban bread fresh from La Segunda Central Bakery. Yet another icon of Ybor’s rich history that you simply must go to.
And when you do go… Cuban bread, guava turnover, almond crescents, cafe con leche.
That’s all I’m saying.
An absolute must-order for any first-timer (or returning guest) at the Columbia, the restaurant’s signature “1905” salad is one of the few ways I will legit put away some iceberg lettuce with rapture.
Named as one of the top ten salads in the nation by USA Today, the dish is built with a generous serving of iceberg lettuce tossed with julienne of baked ham, natural Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese and coated in the famous garlic dressing that’s been working its tantalizing magic for over 100 years.
The salad is prepared to order right at your table; and sitting next to toasty bread and butter, the “small” portion of the 1905 makes an amply gut-busting meal for one.
It’s funny, cause the other day when I was just wasting my life on Facebook, I saw where someone had commented on another person’s check-in at the Columbia. It said something along the lines of the eatery being overpriced and overrated… now, I’m sure whoever that individual was has some totally justified grounds for saying so. But at the same time, I must politely disagree.
It’s just that I’m not even from around here, so obviously I don’t have nearly as much knowledge and sentiment connected with the Columbia Restaurant (or the surrounding general district for that matter) as someone who maybe grew up with it, but I still highly treasure the few experiences I’ve had with the place. To me, the Columbia illuminates a certain element of glamor—a glamor that while long-gone from the majority of our familiar reality, still exists behind the Columbia’s heavy wooden doors. It may not be cutting edge culinary couture; and sure, it’s kind of tourist attraction now… but those glimmery shimmery walls hold alotta history, alotta culture and alotta alotta memories of many a special meal past.
As I observed a young Asian NYC student ( that’s what his t-shirt implied, so let’s go with it) sit down to dinner across the way with who I assumed to be his mother, it reminded me of when I brought my own mom and brother in to the Columbia only a few weeks ago when they came down for a visit. Similar to how I had to explain tapas to my mama as appetizers, I overheard this kid clarify to his mom that tapas were basically the same thing as dim sum.
They reveled in loaves of warm Cuban bread as the brittle crust shattered in a crumb storm all over their laps to reveal a melt-in-your mouth fluffy center, just like we did. The woman’s face lit with intrigue as their waiter explained how special the bread is…baked with a palm leaf down the center at the bakery just around the corner…while he prepared their pitcher of bright sangria.
I sat, staring, probably rather creepily, and verging on envious at this kid showing off the Columbia to his mommy dearest. Why am I sharing fuzzy family moments with you right now?
Um because enjoying a pitcher of cool sangria with my family and equally sharing in the delight of introductory bites into our “1905” salads as a live pianist played Elton John hits behind us… that’s a straight up fantastic memory to me. In that moment, we were simply happy, we felt nothing but pleasure… and maybe an ever so slight buzz. It was a beautiful meal, a beautiful moment and a most beautiful memory embedded in a beautiful place. And I’ll bet the dinner I witnessed between a mother and son was likewise a treasured occasion.
If I can go into a restaurant alone lookin a hot mess, end up dropping a grand total of 15 bucks on dinner, and feel like a total lady while charming waiters gracefully dash around an elegant dinning room, without missing a beat or forgetting to throw a courteous wink as they pass… I dig it.
Now as much as I appreciate the Columbia’s enchanting ambiance and delicious chocolate breath mints, neither were actually my essential purpose in going. No, I was a chick on a mission.
Perhaps I’ve mentioned… I’m a pathetic sandwich fiend. Six out of seven days in a week, I’ll take a solid sandwich over a premium cut steak… well, maybe like five out of seven days. But whatever. Point is, If you slap it on bread, I’m attracted to it. And it just so happens that amongst the most iconic edible beacons of Tampa’s cultural profile is a sandwich… the illustrious Cuban sandwich.
From what I can gather, the earliest form of the Cuban, aka the Cubano, aka the mixto, first made its way to Florida in the lunch sacks of Cuban immigrants during the late 1800’s. Arriving in Tampa in conjunction with a booming cigar industry and the subsequent birth of Ybor City, the sandwich was submitted to outside cultural influences from Italian and Spanish immigrants coexisting there. Thus, the Tampa version of a Cuban sandwich includes Genoa salami in addition to the essential ham, pork, Swiss cheese and pickles layered betwixt a sliced length of Cuban bread. While extensive debate surrounds the definition of a “true” Cuban (concerning condiments, pressing and what not), general purist guidelines dictate that the sandwich must utilize real Cuban bread, incorporate the essentials mentioned above and lettuce/mayo/tomato are a big fat no thank yous. Miami also claims to be homeland of the Cuban sandwich, but everyone knows they’re lying.
The fact that this is the only area in the country where you can obtain an authentic Cuban sandwich and I’ve been here two months without sampling one was not okay. I had to get on it.
I dedicated an embarrassing amount of time towards researching which local eatery produces the best Cuban; naturally everyone has their personal preference. So, I figured the Columbia, being the original crowning restaurant jewel of Ybor, was as good a destination as any. Though the Cuban isn’t present on their dinner menu, the Columbia staff will gladly reheat the press to fulfill your sandwiching needs. In order to preserve the original integrity of the Cuban sandwich, the Columbia uses only imported Italian salami and takes particular care in slow-roasting their pork. The Columbia’s Cuban sandwich is served with a side of plantain chips, as well as lettuce and tomato…just in case you want to ruin it.
I can now stand before you and proudly say… Hi my name is Darcy Lenz, I came to Tampa, I had a true Cuban sandwich experience, and it was good.
Next stop on the agenda, Bern’s Steakhouse.
More specifically, the Harry Waugh Dessert Room at Bern’s. I had no interest in steak.
See that beauty up there… that’s what chocolate for dinner looks like. Her name is Chocolate-Chocolate-Chocolate.
That means layers of chocolate cheese pie, chocolate cheesecake, with a white chocolate center, and milk chocolate mousse
on a dense chocolate crust and accompanied by dark chocolate sauce.
I know right. Shut up.
Stick that with a hazelnut cafe con leche, and who actually needs real food ever again?
I have significantly less background info and warm sentimental anecdotes concerning Bern’s.
All I really knew about the place is that it’s a fancy shmancy steakhouse with a rep and has a separate area specifically designated for coffee, wine and dessert.
Named in honor of a renowned icon in the wine world (Harry Waugh, duh), this upstairs dinning room boasts a menu filled with all imaginable items of an intensely delightful post-dinner nature and makes for a totally justified trip to Bern’s in and of itself.
If you don’t understand why it was a matter of life or death that I visit this place… you don’t know me at all.
Get out of here.
I’m just joshin ya. Come back.
Real talk though, how many places do you know of that has a dessert room… with a big fat book of decadent creations, wine, coffee, cheese and liquor, oh my.
This was a venture I thankfully help in executing…
As neat as the atmosphere is in the place, it’s kinda weird. Like everyone whispers and you sit in barrels. Don’t ask. You had to be there. I’m just saying, it’s not something you’d really want to do alone. Unless you’re really old and batty and eccentric and wear gobs of diamonds and shuffle with an air of elderly mystery.
That’s the only personality-type I would envision comfortably sitting solo in their dessert barrel. If you’re not that, grab a pal and go see Harry Waugh for some serious indulgence.
Here I gotta pay recognition to my own desserting companion, my bud Ali. Ali dear and I went to school together way back in the day and she’s remained a good friend of mia familia even after moving down here to Tampa. The girl has been an absolute doll over the past few weeks, helping me cross things off my Tampa to-do. I feel like total scuzz for not even getting a final photo with Miss Ali to insert right about now… cause I’m a goon and forget that normal people take pictures of things other than food. All the same, big kudos to Ali for being a wonderful, supa sweet chickadee, and for her mad photo contributions above.
Without her, I may very well have missed out on playing around the Ybor & SOHO nightlife scenes, Dali, epic Harry Potter in IMAX, some rocking tapas and of course, socially acceptable dessert for dinner. And you would have to do without drooling over her Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffle & here charming boyfriend’s Dulce de Leche Liquid Center Cake.
Which would be as much of a shame as me not finishing off my leftover chocolate love child right now.
So yeah. That’d make this a goodbye.