TAMPA — Every year on "1905 Day," the Columbia Restaurant rolls back its menu prices closer to what they would have been about a century ago, when it opened as a 24-hour corner cafe serving the cigar workers of Ybor City.
So this Sunday, the restaurant expects hundreds to line up outside its doors to take advantage of the anniversary-priced $2.95 chicken and rice and $1.95 "1905 salad."
But here's what they won't know:
The Columbia wasn't really founded in 1905. And it's not 103 years old.
Fourth-generation owner Richard Gonzmart got the news five years ago, about four weeks after he hired a historian to validate his family's claim that the Columbia is, in fact, Florida's oldest restaurant. (Newspapers wouldn't print that detail in their stories without proof.)
"I've got good news and bad news," Gonzmart remembers hearing from University of South Florida history professor Gary Mormino.
Oh, God, Gonzmart worried. Maybe someone in the Panhandle is older.
"Tell me the good news."
"You are Florida's oldest restaurant," he remembers hearing. "But you have to change the name of the 1905 salad to the 1903 salad."
Mormino had found a newspaper blurb from Dec. 17, 1903. On the same day the Wright brothers flew the first plane over Kitty Hawk, N.C., Gonzmart's great grandpa was serving turkey and beer.
This was 2003. Gonzmart, who had spent the past 25 years planning the restaurant's centennial, was missing it.
Even as it grew to a six-restaurant chain, Gonzmart never changed his restaurant's anniversary or the name of its signature salad. And when 2005 rolled around, he threw a big party.
No one knew the difference.
On Dec. 17 this year, Gonzmart said he may throw a 105th celebration, but on a smaller scale. It'll be fun, he said. Like a kid having two birthdays.
"We're very proud of the restaurant in its 100-plus years," Gonzmart said. "Plus or minus a couple."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.