TAMPA — As an 1,800-word report on its website attests, the Columbia Restaurant carries a lot of history.
The Ybor City icon opened in 1905, added air conditioning in 1935, survived the demise of cigar factories and lured major Latin entertainers to its showroom.
A more spontaneous moment 50 years ago also changed the restaurant: Night waiter Joe Roman let loose with a song.
Since then, customers have expected to encounter the "Singing Waiter" on their visits to Florida's oldest restaurant at 2117 E Seventh Ave.
He greeted them by name, sang show tunes on request and caused handkerchiefs to disappear in magic tricks. Tourists asked for him every year. The restaurant entered him into its hall of fame, set a paving stone out front in his honor and put his picture on the menu.
Now the camaraderie between the public and one of Tampa's most popular waiters has ended. Mr. Roman, a fixture at the Columbia for 59 years, died Wednesday at his home, of lung cancer. He was 84.
"Anybody at the table could ask him to sing this or that and he would just break out and sing," said former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who has known Mr. Roman most of his life. "He had that kind of personality. He was part of what the Columbia was all about.
"He would break out with Some Enchanted Evening or some such thing and you could hear it all over the restaurant," Greco said.
If his ever-present smile was an indication, Mr. Roman enjoyed his work.
"This is my second home," he told a trade magazine in 2006. "The waiters you see here are all happy."
Joe Mari Roman was born in Ybor City. His parents had arrived from Cuba in 1910 aboard a ferry that ran to Tampa four times a week. He quit school at 16.
After working at other restaurants, he hired on at the Columbia in August 1953, said Matilda Roman, his wife of 63 years, initially as a dishwasher. Eventually the work paid well — bringing him between $200 and $250 a day in dinner tips alone.
"Joe was a pleasant person to be around," said Columbia general manager George Guito, 65, who has also worked at the restaurant more than 50 years. "Even if he had one of those customers who could be kind of difficult, he made them feel good afterwards. Once they left the restaurant, they felt good about it."
Since the late 1950s, the restaurant has tried to give customers something else to feel good about: live music. Mr. Roman had been serving paella, bacon-wrapped filet mignon and chicken sauteed in lobster bisque and brandy for several years when owner Cesar Gonzmart, a concert violinist, added several personal touches.
Gonzmart strolled among the tables, playing. One evening in 1962, Mr. Roman let fly with, I Left My Heart in San Francisco. He had a relaxed, almost conversational singing style, and was blessed with a rapid natural vibrato.
"Cesar Gonzmart heard him and said, 'Go ahead, Joe,' " said Matilda Roman, 81. Sometimes, Gonzmart and the Singing Waiter performed together.
Cesar Gonzmart died in 1992. Mr. Roman stayed on full-time another 10 years, until knee trouble forced him to cut back his hours. In 2005, Richard Gonzmart, Cesar Gonzmart's son and the current owner, changed Mr. Roman's title to "Columbia Restaurant Ambassador." Mr. Roman embraced the role, leading customers on tours through the restaurant's 15 dining rooms and a wine cellar the size of a small library.
His departure has saddened the family of restaurateurs and co-workers of up to half a century.
"I'll never see another Joe Roman in my life, at the Columbia or anywhere else," Richard Gonzmart said.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.