Tampa, Old: Ybor City and Columbia Restaurant

The Columbia Restaurant was the only food destination from my childhood that I was able to revisit on this trip. It was as fabulous as I remembered—not just the food, but the décor, the Old World charm, the sky lights and balconies, and most especially the gorgeous tile work inside and out.

Columbia Restaurant, Tampa

Columbia Restaurant, Tampa


The Columbia is the oldest restaurant in Florida, having opened in 1905. It was created by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., and is now run by the fifth generation of the founding family. I love that kind of history.

As well as being the oldest restaurant in Florida, it is also the largest—and in fact, according to their website, is the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. Everything I have ever eaten there has been wonderful, but they are particularly known for their Cuban black bean soup, sangria, flan, “1905 salad,” Cuban sandwich, and seafood dishes.

Over the years, a few other locations were opened for the Columbia, including what is now the oldest restaurant in Sarasota. But the original Columbia is at the outer edge of Ybor City in Tampa. Ybor City is a National Historic District that has been home to a wide range of immigrants over the years, most especially Cuban, Spanish, Italian, German, and Jewish.

7th Street, Ybor City, Tampa

7th Street, Ybor City, Tampa


Ybor City is now a top destination for cigar aficionados, as the main street is lined with shops carrying hand-rolled cigars. We explored the length of 7th Avenue, enjoying the historic markers, statues, and old buildings, and stopped in a couple of cigar shops to watch the artisans at work, appreciating the care and skill needed to make really good cigars. Then, we headed for the Columbia.
Cigar-rolling station, tobacco, cigars

Cigar-rolling station, tobacco, cigars


Should you get to Florida, here is more information on the Columbia Restaurant (including a lot more history, plus the menus) and on Ybor City (again, more history and lots of useful information for visitors).

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Tampa, Old: Bern’s Steak House

In Tampa, we divided the time we had between new developments and iconic classics.

Among icons, it’s hard to beat Bern’s Steak House, which opened in 1956. Remarkably, it is still in the same family, run by the heirs of Bern Laxer, for whom the restaurant was named.

Bern's Steak House, Tampa, Florida

Bern’s Steak House, Tampa, Florida


While it is famous for its steaks, Bern’s is even more remarkable for its wine collection. There are more than 100,000 bottles in the restaurant’s cellar plus another half a million in the nearby wine warehouse. It is the largest wine collection in the world owned by one restaurant. Number 2 is the Tour d’Argent in Paris. The oldest bottle here is an 1813 port, but the costliest is a 1947 Chateau Latour.
One small part of the wine cellar at Bern's.

One small part of the wine cellar at Bern’s.


The general consensus among the food experts I know is that the side dishes are a little predictable, though still good, but the steaks, desserts, and most especially the wines are what you go for. In addition to being numerous, more wines are within range, economically, than one might imagine. As the sommelier who was guiding us through the cellar said, their priority is giving people a remarkable experience, rather than getting top dollar for the wines. They had someone offer them more than double the asking price for one of their rarest wines, but to take it and add it to their collection, rather than to drink it. The owners said, “No. It is to be drunk here.”

The ambiance is probably also a big draw. The lobby has a decidedly European castle feel to it, with soaring stone walls covered with art. There are seven dining rooms, each named for a wine region or a dominant design elements (such as the Bronze Room). When one is finished with the meal, one can go upstairs to the dessert rooms, which are astonishing. The dominant feature of the room is a stunning amount of gorgeous, highly polished wood, which divides up the room, making it a popular place for things like marriage proposals or other transactions that might benefit from a touch of privacy. Near each table, there is a telephone, which can be used to call the pianist, for special requests.

We didn’t have the chance to dine at Bern’s, but they didn’t want us to pass through without having some idea of their culinary abilities. As we were led through the splendid kitchen, we were offered lamb meatballs and grilled octopus and bruschetta on a slice of potato. Really excellent. Definitely on my list of “reasons to get back to Tampa.”

Ahead: another old Tampa icon, and then some new Tampa trends and destinations.

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Natalie Dupree on Florida Food

As I mentioned a few posts ago, the reason I was in Florida was for a food-writers conference, and we spent several days listening to great speakers on topics ranging from marketing your writing to how to describe Florida food. Cookbook author Natalie Dupree was on hand to tell us about traditional Florida cooking–not the fabulous, innovative stuff we were experiencing at the restaurants we were visiting, but the kind of fare that has been foundational and long-standing.

Dupree noted that her introduction to Florida’s cuisine was in the book Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. While my intro was my dad and visits to Florida, I’ve read Cross Creek, and its descriptions of Rawlings’s creamed crab, with milk from her own cow and crab caught only hours before, the fish fries and hush puppies, and the fresh fruit make the food of the era (1920s) in Florida sound not only appealing, but worth carrying on.

Florida’s traditional cuisine blends elements of Southern food with Caribbean, especially Cuban, but with considerable influence from African American and Spanish cultures. Dupree related that, in much of Florida, you are often served black-eyed peas, coleslaw, and crab cakes for lunch–which is very Southern. The American South stretches from Maryland to the southern tip of Florida, but of that 2,000-mile coastline, almost half of it is Floridian. If you add in all the rivers and lakes, Florida has 11,000 miles of waterways. Hence, the focus on seafood.

Dupree said the best description she’s ever encountered of Florida’s stone crab was in a James Bond novel. (I did a search online, and Bond dining on stone crab appears in Goldfinger, at a restaurant called “Bill’s on the Beach,” though it is clearly Joe’s Stone Crab that is being described.)

Some other tidbits:
The South has fried pies because no one would light the oven in Florida in August.
“Streak of lean” is the Southern name for belly bacon.
The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook written in 1824 by Mary Randolph, includes a recipe for gazpacho, underscoring how far north Spanish influence reached.

This is not the first time I’ve heard Natalie Dupree speak, and she always comes armed with wonderful stories and anecdotes. So if you have a chance to hear her, take it. If you don’t have that chance, there are always her cookbooks.

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Florida Crackers

I had heard the term “Florida Cracker” before this trip, but had never heard it explained. The term comes from the early days of Florida settlement. When Spanish explorers in the early 1500s failed to find gold, silver, or the fountain of youth, they headed back to the well-established Spanish colonies in Mexico and South America, leaving behind all the livestock they’d brought with them, including large herds of cattle and many horses. The animals became feral and adapted to the Florida climate. When English settlers began arriving, about a century after the Spanish had left, they found the makings of a cattle industry just waiting for those resourceful enough to take advantage of the by now substantial, if wild, herds of livestock.

Some came on horseback, while others captured the wild horses abandoned by the Spanish. With nothing more than a horse and a whip with which to move the herds of cattle, these early settlers founded successful ranches. In time, they became known for the loud crack of their stock whips–hence, crackers.

The small, agile, wild horses they adopted were so indispensable to the success of the crackers that they became known as cracker horses, much as mounts in the American West would become known as cow ponies. They were the horses needed by those managing cattle.

However, this was long before the American West had even been explored, let alone settled. So the first American cowboys, horses, and cattle ranches were all Floridian. Even today, Florida is a major beef producer, and Florida Cracker culture lives on.

The culture lives on, but the traditional horses were eventually replaced by quarter horses. However, efforts have been made to preserve the bloodlines of the handsome, little Florida Cracker Horse. Here’s a video about their history and those efforts to keep them around.

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Tampa Bay Bridges

One of the things worth noting is that it would be impossible to get around the area without bridges. On the St. Pete side of Tampa Bay, there are strings of islands that can only be reached by bridges. If you want to travel from St. Pete to Tampa, if you don’t want to spend hours driving around the end of the bay, you’ll need to cross one of Old Tampa Bay’s long bridges. (If you’re flying into Tampa Airport, you’ll see these from the air as you approach.)

Happily, crossing the bridges is quite wonderful. It offers splendid views of the water and whichever city you’re approaching. Depending on the light, it can be absolutely magical.

As with any city, rush hour can be frustrating—but if you’re on vacation, just plan around rush hour. (And if you’re from somewhere like LA, Chicago, or NYC, you probably won’t even recognize Tampa Bay’s rush hour as actually being an issue.)

Heading toward Tampa on the Gandy Bridge

Heading toward Tampa on the Gandy Bridge


The view from the bridge

The view from the bridge

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Locale Market

St. Petersburg’s Locale Market was astonishing in every way. Shelves were lined with glorious packaged foods and confections. Glass cases showcased glorious meat, fish, house-made sausages. Various prep kitchens were bustling with cooks creating dishes that could be eaten on the patio outside or taken home. A glass wall offered a view of handsome slabs of beef dry aging in a salt-lined vault, while the meat counter displays gorgeous cuts ready to be taken home. Wines, coffees, and teas were on offer, packaged or for consuming on the spot.

The dazzling, two-story market also has a farm-to-table restaurant on the premises, mostly outdoors, but under cover, so the weather won’t limit dining opportunities. If you love food and happen to find yourself in St. Pete, this is absolutely worth visiting. Here are a few photos, to help you envision the offerings here (and the whimsy of those displaying the foods).

Locale Market and its outdoor dining areas

Locale Market and its outdoor dining areas


Black Grouper is an iconic dish in this area.

Black Grouper is an iconic dish in this area.


One of the kitchens is visible behind this display of exceptional beef.

One of the kitchens is visible behind this display of exceptional beef.


A touch of whimsy: alligator "guards" alligator andouille.

A touch of whimsy: alligator “guards” alligator andouille.

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St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive

From Sea Salt, we walked eastward, toward the water and Beach Drive. As it would turn out, this would just be our first visit to this waterfront roadway—and in fact this proved to be a good opportunity to note the locations of some of the places we hoped to visit later in the week. This first night, we wandered northward up the drive, stopping at a place that had been recommended to one of the other writers: 400 Beach. We sat outside, enjoying the sea breeze after a steamy day, and worked on getting to know other conference goers.

We all ordered something from the sea. I opted for the fish tacos, which were amazing and were served with a mango and papaya salad. This was actually listed as an appetizer, but I can’t imagine eating anything after these two impressively generous tacos. We all agreed that this place was definitely a good suggestion.
FishTaco-B

Across the street, we could see the Museum of Fine Arts, to which I returned the next night. Impressive collection for a small town, with many familiar names in the galleries of paintings, plus some very nice antiques, artifacts from around the world, sculpture, decorative arts, and an entire room brought from somewhere in Europe.

Farther down on Beach Drive, was the Dali Museum, which I didn’t see on this trip but heard great reports from those who did.

Strolling back toward the hotel, we passed Birchwood, to which we would return in a few nights for the awards banquet. Impressive food there, as well. So if you are in doubt as to what to do in St. Pete, between the museums and the restaurants, not to mention the views of the parks, marina, and bay, it seems that heading for Beach Drive would be a safe bet.

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