YBOR CITY — It began as a saloon, with swinging wooden doors and tough guys possessed of a powerful thirst, no dames allowed. It was a rough-and-tumble outlet in which Florida Brewery showcased its suds, a guy named Casimiro Hernandez tended bar. The patrons would get hungry from time to time, so Hernandez whipped up Spanish bean soup, a soup that lingered so emphatically in gut and memory that by 1920 journalists were saying that Tampa was famous for three things: sun, cigars and soup.
So began the Columbia, Florida's oldest restaurant and the world's largest Spanish restaurant, a full city block in Tampa's fabled Latin quarter. The lives and legends fed and nurtured by Ybor City's most famous landmark over the past century are chronicled in The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine (University Press of Florida), a new book by Andy Huse, assistant librarian of the special and digital collections department at the Tampa Library. Huse will be talking about his book at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Huse, born in Chicago and raised in Clearwater, is also a food historian, poring through ancient splotched menus, oral histories, clippings and other ephemera in order to flesh out the characters, ingredients and traditions that give Florida its distinctive flavor.
"When I first started in graduate school I was in a Southern history class. Everyone in it wanted to write papers on civil rights issues, but to me those subjects seemed too well plowed. I wanted to find stories that had never been told," Huse says. "We know so much about the villains of history — about war and economics — but we don't know who domesticated rice. As a discipline, food was chopped up between home economists and nutritionists, with no one looking at it from a historical angle."
His burgeoning interest in food coincided with the ascent of the Food Network in the 1990s. All of a sudden everyone was interested in food, a phenomenon that led to Huse's first book about a legendary Tampa Bay restaurant. The Seabreeze by the Bay Cookbook, published in 2001, was co-authored with Helen Richards.
Gary Mormino, a professor of Florida studies at USF, paved the way for Huse to write the history of the Columbia by inviting Huse to tag along in 2004 to a meeting with the Columbia's Gonzmart family as they explored ways to commemorate their 100th birthday. Huse was asked to organize the restaurant's extensive archives — a collection the Gonzmart family then gave to the library in 2006.
"I'd already been studying the national restaurant scene, studying how food trends changed during Prohibition or after World War II. The Columbia was a great case study of how a restaurant had changed over the years."
After the heated Florida land boom in the 1920s and the bust that followed, Casimiro Sr., a glad-hander known as Fatty, passed the torch to Casimiro Jr. A stoic and disciplined young man, he expanded the restaurant just as Ybor City's cigar factories started their decline in the 1930s. Huse paints Junior as the restless perfectionist with an unimpeachable work ethic: During WWII, when Tampa saw a huge influx of men training as pilots and sailors on leave, Casimiro Jr. kept the restaurant open 24 hours, stealing catnaps at the register.
By the end of the war, the Columbia was known worldwide. A Tampa Tribune journalist named Paul Wilder wrote a "column," really an advertisement, which appeared opposite the editorial page. Off and on for 10 years Wilder's column chronicled the colorful goings-on at the restaurant — a treasure trove of stories for Huse's research.
Casimiro Jr. started to get old in the 1950s. He only had a daughter, Adela, a pianist, who ended up marrying Cesar Gonzales-Martinez, a violinist. Because at the time so many people had those names, he changed his to Gonzmart. Cesar was the restaurant's next generation.
Cesar and Adela's son, Richard, was next to ascend to the throne, passing through lean times in the 1970s to renew the restaurant's luster in the 1980s. But, according to Huse, the crisis part in the narrative is when Cesar died in 1992.
"Cesar did business the old-fashioned way, with a lot of handshakes and winking. No one knew how much money the restaurant made or owed, the books were totally out of whack. Richard was the one to step up to the plate and made hard decisions."
It is these ebbs and flows that make The Columbia Restaurant a great case study of a family business' struggle to survive through crises.
"I didn't want to write a cookbook or just a history of a restaurant," Huse says. "It's a history of a family, with universal situations like the tensions between fathers and sons and changing gender roles. It's a book about failures and great personal stories. I wanted to push the envelope — and when I was done writing, I went to the Gonzmarts' house and read them the whole thing."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.