By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
TAMPA — The new Tampa Bay History Center is buff. It is a 60,000-square-foot beauty with four floors of exhibits and galleries and a huge atrium. From the backside along the Riverwalk, it is full-throttle gawkable.
Its mission is fairly ambitious, too, zipping through 12,000 years of local history. They've hired the right restaurateur. Richard Gonzmart, great-grandson of Casimiro Hernandez Sr., founder of Columbia Restaurant in Tampa's Historic Ybor City, is passionate about Ybor City, about local food history and about Cuban sandwiches (not necessarily in that order).
The center's Columbia Café concerns itself with authenticity. It has a gorgeous wooden bar that is a reproduction of the original Columbia's bar, with black-and-white prints of old Ybor on the walls. Its brief menu is dotted with chunky text explaining the Ybor staples (devil crab croquettes, Cuban bread, Spanish bean soup).
In short, the cafe will feed hungry visitors. If Columbia Café has hopes of luring locals after hours to the gorgeous riverside patio or tiny upstairs bar and dining room, however, they've got to tinker.
Signage is not sufficient: Where's the entrance exactly? Is it this door, or this one? And $5 parking with no validation is going to be a tough sell for a restaurant where most dishes are under $9. That hikes up a sandwich cost pretty quick. A small thing, but with super-windy waterside dining, the use of plastic-wrapped straws seems environmentally reckless.
The bigger issue is the food. It's just not as good as at the flagship restaurant or any of the other Columbia locations. Having had a recent Cuban at the Ybor original, this one ($8.95) left me cold. All the right ingredients, just not melty and delicious-centered and crunchy-exteriored. A novelty on Columbia menus, however, a pressed meatloaf sandwich ($7.95) was our single favorite dish, moist and piquant, with a little Swiss and yellow mustard thrown into the mix.
A handful of straightforward tapas adds to the lineup of sandwiches — sadly, the fried calamari ($8.95) were tender, as advertised, but undercooked and gushy. A crock of hot crab, shrimp and artichoke dip ($8.95) had a thick cap of burnt Romano that added nothing to the mild creaminess, accompanied by bland, overly thick water crackers.
The original 1905 salad ($4.95 and $8.95) is what we've come to expect. There's not the pageantry of the tableside service, but all the right stuff goes into the mix. Similarly, the paper-wrapped lengths of La Segunda Cuban bread are the real deal.
To compete effectively with nearby Channelside dining for tourists' and locals' lunch and dinner business, Columbia Café will have to focus more on execution. It's not enough to offer a white chocolate bread pudding ($5.95) that could feed a family of six. That family of six should be dueling to get that last spoonful of Bacardi rum sauce. As it was, the dessert sat mostly untouched as the center, Tampa's newest jewel, began closing up for the evening.
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. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.