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July 15, 2007

Tampa - Day I

Dominic Armato
At long last, I'm settled at home with an internet connection for the first time in nearly a month. Of course, home is now 706 miles from where it was the last time I was in a comfortable position to write, and new posts, they are a brewin'. But first, a recap of an outstanding little culinary trip I had in the interim.

Back towards the end of June, my ladylove's presence was required in Tampa for the boards and I went along for moral support. Of course, this left me with extended periods of time to myself, as she spent the daytime in a cubicle, hunched over a microscope. I'm not much of a beach guy, so rightly or wrongly I don't think of Tampa as a tourist city. Orlando's not too far away, but I once visited a Disney park by myself during a dark period of my stint in L.A, and that's not a road I care to traverse again. So clearly, the thing to do was eat my way across the city.

Dominic Armato
Perhaps I didn't give it enough respect going in, but I was thrilled to discover that Tampa is one helluva good eating town. I had three days to cram in as much as I could, and day two turned out to be one of my best eating days of the past few years. Of course, it helps when you have a great guide, and JeffB over at LTH Forum (a Tampa native, I believe) sent me in all the right directions, and a few others chipped in with some great recs as well.

I didn't get out of the gate quite as quickly as I would have liked on day one, but good food was a distant second priority for the trip and we opted to stay close to home and eat conservatively so as to keep my board-certified hopeful in tip top test taking form. A simple, comfortable, relaxing lunch was in order but a screwy hotel internet connection conspired to keep me from my online sources. The one place I could remember offhand that seemed appropriate was Tampa's famous Columbia Restaurant, so we moseyed over to Ybor to fill up.

Dominic Armato
Columbia Restaurant is a trip. It's the kind of elaborate, ornate, multi-roomed affair that would come off as totally pretentious and overdone if it didn't have 102 years of history behind it. The place was opened in 1905, and I think the waiters are still using the original vests and bowties. It's as though the Gonzmart clan, which owns and runs the restaurant to this day, is desperately clinging to the establishment's former glory. But somehow, rather than inspiring pity, it works. It's charming in a genuine throwback sort of way. We were led through enormous oak doors, past a huge bar and through a cavernous ballroom to the courtyard where we dined. Two stories of wrought iron tables and chairs surrounded a central glass atrium that housed green palms and a large stone fountain carved in the shape of a fish. Seated under the sunlight, next to the trickling water, I found myself unable to resist a mojito. It was, in fact, the best item we had -- freshly muddled, crisp, sweet, balanced and totally refreshing.

Dominic Armato
In keeping with the decorum of the establishment, one of the house specials, the 1905 salad, was prepared tableside. I'm not a fan of tableside preparation and I'm not sure what it is about the 1905 salad that merits such attention, but it somehow seemed appropriate. When you're over 100 years old, you deserve to be pampered. It was good, and executed as well as an iceberg lettuce salad with ham, swiss and romano cheeses, olives and a very garlicky vinaigrette can be. But I suppose that's another thing about being 100 years old. You know who you are.

I have no frame of reference for what palomilla should taste like, but my instincts tell me that Columbia's version isn't in the running for best of breed. Thinly sliced and grilled sirloin was paired with a mojo crudo (onions, lime, parsley) and served atop yellow rice and platanos. Overcooked and underseasoned, I thought, but the surroundings had me in a forgiving mood. I enjoyed myself. And in the end, I think that's the bottom line at The Columbia. Culinary nirvana it's not, but it's a unique and fun place that's worth a stop.

Later in the evening we wanted to stay close to the hotel to allow for optimal relaxing and studying, so I'll spare you the details of the national Italian chain across the street (no, no, not THAT one... sheesh). And with my ladylove resting her brain, I spent the evening planning a dense itinerary for the morrow. Tampa Day II, on Wednesday.

Columbia Restaurant
2117 E. 7th Ave.
Tampa, FL 33605
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun12 Noon - 9:00 PM


"It's the kind of elaborate, ornate, multi-roomed affair that would come off as totally pretentious and overdone if it didn't have 102 years of history behind it."

It could have been totally pretentious and overdone back when it opened, too! Just a thought...

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