Caesar Gonzmart must be popping plenty of corks of Spanish bubbly at the Columbia this year. First, the 85-year-old Tampa landmark opened its newest location in Clearwater Beach (the seventh) in January. The newest Columbia is part of the new flurry of posh development at the north end of Sand Key. Behind a modest white stucco exterior, the 200-seat dining room is splashed with Spanish tile and fronts on a half-mile boardwalk along the Intracoastal Waterway. Plus there's a small Cha Cha Coconuts bar with more colors than a beach umbrella. Menu's the same, except for one radical modernization: All items are listed on one fold-out sheet instead of the book-like monster used at the other Columbias. Don't worry, Gonzmart's going slow on such a revolutionary idea.
Then the Columbia was one of 10 restaurants named to join the 100 members of the Fine Dining Hall of Fame of Nation's Restaurant News magazine.
Later this month son Richard Gonzmart will show the crowds at Marshall Field's main store in Chicago how to fix red snapper Alicante and 1905 salad. Columbia fare is part of a Club Florida promotion to bring some sunshine to the Windy City at the height of resort wear season.
Chain gang battle of Titans: The Olive Garden, the amazing pasta machine invented in the Orlando test kitchens of General Mills, may soon face competition from another fast-track feeder.
Chili's, the chain that stuck a cactus in the fern bar, wants to shake the olive tree with its own Italian chain. Top Chili-head Norman Brinker, who created Steak & Ale more than 20 years ago, has bought Romano's Macaroni Grill of San Antonio, Texas, to use as the starting concept for a chain.
Meanwhile, the General Mills family is growing too. What's next after dotting the globe with 541 Red Lobsters and 184 Olive Gardens?
Why, tonight, let's have Chinese!
Indeed, the General Mills brain trust in Orlando opened China Coast in a "one-unit test" of an Oriental restaurant on tourist-clogged International Drive this month. The teahouse-like building is only a short distance from where the first Olive Garden opened in 1982; after four years of tinkering, General Mills sent Olive Garden forth to conquer the World.
The China Coast menu has maps and cuisine of three regions of Chinese cooking, Mandarin, Cantonese and Szechuan, and the dishes are the classics, from moo shu pork to Buddha's delight.
As the company plays its China card, the strategy will probably be much the same: Find a food that's popular and sold primarily in Mom-and-Pop restaurants, modernize it a bit, add some flashy design and market like mad.