The Columbia Restaurant – On the St. Petersburg Pier June 9, 2011
Friends Dick and Cheryl were visiting for a few days. They had come back to town for a high school reunion. It was a free day and they wanted to take us out to dinner. But where to go? It was a typical hot summer day in St. Petersburg, Florida. The growing cumulus clouds in the west were drawing closer. They offered the chance of onshore breezes, a bit of cooling, to St. Pete’s waterfront. I suggested the Columbia Restaurant on the St. Petersburg Pier. It was a place Janis and I had both wanted to try especially after a pleasant experience at the Ybor City Columbia Restaurant (see my January 2010 blog). As it turns out, it is also a favorite of Dick and Cheryl They had frequented it when they lived locally.
There was light traffic making for an easy drive to the water front. We found a parallel parking slot on the causeway q
uite close, within easy walking distance, to the iconi
c inverted pyramid. The Columbia Restaurant occupies the entirety of the fourth floor of the pyramid. The kitchen and storage areas are in the center and the dining areas are lined along the sides giving every table a view out of the window of St. Petersburg or of Tampa Bay. The mirrored inner wall provides a feeling of spaciousness. The tables are set with linen tablecloths and napkins as well as a full setting of silverware. There is a promise of fine dining.
The three big factors that work for or against a fine dining experience are the setting, the food, and the service. Columbia on the pier has an abundance of ambiance in its favor. It has a spacious dining area with uncrowded seating, well appointed table settings and even the most remote seating is but a table away from a window view of Tampa Bay. The food we will cover later.
Our server, Denise, was definitely a positive asset. She was qu
ickly there after we were seated. She delivered the menus and took our drink orders. She heard us discussing the menu’s offerings. The Columbia has two menus, on for luncheon and one for dinner. We were late enough to be shown the dinner menu but what we wanted, a Cuban sandwich and a cup of soup, was only shown on the luncheon menu. Denise volunteered that we could also order from the luncheon menu.
Janis ordered a Cuban sandwich (Smoked ham, pork, salami, Swiss cheese, dill pickle and mustard on hot Cuban bread.) with black beans and rice (Frijoles Negros prepared exactly like their grandmother, Carmen Hernandez did. Served over a bed of white rice and topped with diced raw Spanish onions.
Cheryl ordered Chicken and Shrimp Barcelona (Boneless chicken breast sautéed with shrimp in delicious lobster bisque, brandy, white wine carrots and onions. Served with yellow rice.
Dick ordered the Columbia's 1905 Salad® (The Columbia's legendary salad tossed at your table. Crisp iceberg lettuce with julienne of baked ham, natural Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese and our famous garlic dressing and our 100 year old family recipe of fresh garlic, oregano, wine vinegar and Spanish extra virgin olive oil).
) and a Cuban sandwich.
I chose Spanish Bean Soup (The soup that made the Columbia famous. The original recipe of Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. Garbanzo beans simmered with smoked ham, chorizo sausage and potatoes in a delicious broth of chicken and ham.
) and a Cuban sa
Our drink orders and Cuban bread arrived in short order. Dick had ordered a Bloody Mary to be made just so. From the grin on his face I would gather that it was made just right. I ordered a Coca Cola. It was a good sized glass without a lot of filler ice. Whenever the level in the glass neared the bottom, Denise brought me another, fresh glass. The water at the table is served with lemon wedges on the side. The bread is hot and tasty; tender inside with a flaky crust. Cuban bread is made with lard which gives it the good flavor and texture. Ample butter is served in individual ramekins.
Denise returned in a few moments this time bringing a stand and tray with the makings for the 1905 Salad. The salad is prepared at tableside with a bit theatrical flourish for the guest’s entertainment much as a Caesar Salad once was. Even though the rest of the orders had not yet arrived, Dick nibbled at his salad, offering samples. It is a nice looking and a large salad with crisp lettuce, sliced ham and cheese. The dressing is garlicky and piquant. It would make a nice light dinner all by itself.
The remainder of the order arrived shortly thereafter. Cheryl’s Chicken and Shrimp Barcelona was a nice serving with large shrimp. She found the shrimp to be delicious but considered the chicken a bit bland. Overall she considered it a good meal but to her palate the rice and sauce were a bit too salty.
Janis savored her black beans and rice. It is one of her favorite dishes, one she makes at home. She savored each bite asking how she could make her version at home taste more like the dish served at the Columbia. My Spanish bean soup was excellent. The broth was excellent, full flavored. The soup was thick with the garbanzo beans, ham sausage and potatoes. We also make this soup at home with good results.
, Dick and I had Cuban sandwiches. For those of you who are not familiar with a Cuban sandwich, it is made with a long roll of Cuban bread. It is split open and, much like a sub or hoagie sandwich, after a drizzle of mustard it is piled high with deli sliced roast pork and ham. A last layer is Swiss cheese and Dill pickle. It differs from the sub or hoagie in that the Cuban is a pressed sandwich; it is placed between hot weighted griddle plates. This toasts the Cuban bread to a golden brown, melts the Swiss cheese and compresses the sandwich to about a quarter of its original height; the melted cheese binding the flavor elements together. With a traditional diagonal slice, the sandwich is now ready to serve. The Columbia’s Cuban sandwich differs a bit from Cuban sandwiches you might find in other areas of Florida. The original Columbia was in Ybor City, a cigar manufacturing center. The Columbia served the mainly Cuban workers with Spani
sh bean soup and Cuban sandwiches. There was a later immigratio
n swell with many Italians coming to work in the Ybor City area. To accommodate the new arrivals, salami was added to the ingredients in the Columbia’s Cuban sandwich.
In spite of being pressed, our sandwiches were piled high with roast pork, ham, salami and cheese. The bread was nicely toasted and crisp. The filling was hot and flavorful. It is also filling. The sandwiches were served with a garnish of lettuce, a tomato slice and a wedge of Dill pickle. Also included was a serving of plantain chips. On the luncheon menu they offer the whole sandwich with a cup of soup as well as a lighter version, a half Cuban sandwich with a cup of soup. Dick and I finished our sandwiches with a bit of effort. Janis, perhaps more wisely, ate half of hers and took the second half home for the next day’s lunch. The Columbia does offer desserts (try their flan sometime) but we were sated and passed. We all had enjoyed our meal. It was in pleasant surroundings with a great view. We enjoyed watching the power and sail boats passing by the pier. The service was excellent, Denise did an excellent job.
So far, on my two Columbia Restaurant visits, I have gone with the tried and true, the Cuban sandwich and the Spanish bean soup. The menu has so many delicious sounding dishes I think that on my next visit to a Columbia Restaurant I will order from some other part of the menu. And if the next visit is during the evening, I will ask for seating on the west side. From my fourth floor vantage point I will be able to look out over St. Petersburg and watch the sun setting behind the city’s skyline.
For more information about the Columbia Restaurants, try http://www.columbiarestaurant.com/
For specific information about Columbia Restaurant on the St Petersburg Pier try http://www.columbiarestaurant.com/st_petersburg.asp