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Resting on its laurels

This corner cafe with the dark wood paneling and the gorgeous back bar is the best place in Ybor to grab a taste of its glory days.

So the atmosphere bears a century of tobacco stains. This was Cigar City. Today, most of the Columbia is now nonsmoking.

Art nouveau numerals carved into each column read plainly "1905," when Cuba was a free nation and Tampa was in its first boom. Those were the days.

Plenty of people _ 1,100 a day _ come to the Columbia to taste that nostalgia. But it has been a long time since many people came here for the food alone.

The Columbia grew from one tiny room into the next and the next, until it filled an entire block with beautiful blue and yellow tiles.

In the '50s, it became a pioneer chain and now has five more Columbias in St. Augustine, Celebration, the St. Petersburg Pier (a spectacular room), Clearwater's Sand Key and Sarasota's St. Armands Circle, plus Cha Cha Coconuts.

Outside the Columbia, however, much more has happened. Spanish cooking is no longer the dull meal of Europe, and is now regarded for distinct flavors from the most rustic to the most experimental on the continent.

But not at the Columbia, where most dishes are noted more for their pedigree on the restaurant's own menu than their culinary flavor.

How's the Snapper Alicante? "It's our second most popular dish, we've been serving it since 1958," said our waiter. I'd say it's like old-fashioned Chinese: onions, peppers and almonds in a subgum brown sauce. May have been good snapper, but you'd never know. However, the fried shrimp in bacon were crackling crisp.

I don't object that the menu is old: traditional dishes can be more vital than the latest trend, and I love the 1940 postcard view of the Patio Room on the cover. Yet my recent meals at the Columbia in Ybor, the Pier and St. Armands seemed tired, catering to a tour bus crowd from some place and time where onions, green pepper and rice are exotic.

When visitors ask if Spanish/Cuban/Tampa food is spicy, we try not to smirk. We know this is the humblest of comfort food, bland but warm nourishment for a regional soul starved for character. Most of us find it best hot off a steam table tended with love.

Great Cuban sandwiches depend on fresh, moist pork sliced from a roast that has a little crust of fat. The Columbia's tastes like supermarket cold cuts, with forgettable ham and salami. At dinner, roast pork came as a slab, fat- and flavor-free, not the shredded pork from a suckling lechon stewing in its juices.

Columbia gives more respect to beef with big steaks and filets, but only a nod to the lamb of northern Spain (look for shanks on the Easter menu). It is better known for big pots of paella, shrimp and the fish winter visitors have sought on our coast for decades. All the old standbys are here: that snapper, pompano en papillote dolled up with the crab stuffing (a fish I like better plain) and Russian trout, done with merluza (hake). The last, a Spanish favorite, was best, although the delicate flesh was surrounded by too-sturdy breading. It beat a new dish of sea bass in a Basque style over tomatoes and sliced potatoes that was limp, oily and flavorless.

There are some good tastes. Salteados are fresh out of the skillet and cooked plantains are hot and sweet. The trademark salad, a club of iceberg, ham and cheese with olives and Worcestershire is a crowd pleaser.

Sangria's great if you skip the premixed and order a pitcher made tableside. Do pop for the good stuff made with a Torres red and Spanish brandy.

Much else is disappointing _ rubbery chicken squats on soggy yellow rice, bean soup is too thin and coffee is better than the espresso. The tapas list is puny. More is missing: great lamb stews, grilled quail, bacaloa or Asturian beans and sausage.

Most Columbias require a big crew and they have to hustle to handle the crowds (and long distances to the kitchen). Most do it efficiently, with good humor, grace and occasionally a Latin accent. They are polished at making salads and sangria and reciting Columbia history, but less knowledgeable about food, let alone wine.

Too bad. Richard Gonzmart, in the fourth generation of Columbia owners, has assembled a good showcase of Spanish wines, and made it a stop for winemakers such as the legendary Alejandro Fernandez. The list goes from Rioja and Penedes to Ribera del Dueros for the great Pesquera and Vega Sicilia and to Galicia for lovely whites and Priorat and Navarra for fine reds, from $20 up to $300.

Such wine sets a higher standard of Spanish pride of quality, authenticity and variety than the food. Columbia largely tries to avoid the nuevo, except for mango chutney on a shrimp cocktail, a steak flambeed with fashionable Booker Noe bourbon and a very un-Ybor chimichanga at lunch. I was more impressed by Cabrales cheese on a tomato salad and criollo shrimp with sweet potatoes.

This should be a fiesta, not a museum, and it could happen. In continuing renovation as the Columbia approaches its centennial, the Ybor location has added a $1.5-million kitchen and New York designers are working on two new dining rooms.

I'd also like to see the name of a living chef on the menu, an effort to refresh the old foods we love or maybe just nightly specials or a separate room for those few who'd want a broader taste of Spain. It could give the next century more flavor.

Columbia Restaurant

2117 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City

(813) 248-4961

(additional locations in Sarasota, St. Petersburg, St. Augustine, Clearwater Beach and Celebration)

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Hours at other locations may vary

Reservations: Recommended

Details: Most credit cards, full bar, non-smoking sections, wheelchair access

Special features: Private rooms, valet parking, flamenco show (nightly except Sunday); jazz (Thursday through Saturday in the cafe), cigar-friendly, gift shop

Prices: lunch, $5.95 to $21.95; dinner, $13.50 to $22.95

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