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Nov 2, 2010 07:08 PM

Columbia (Sarasota)--criticism?

Several weeks ago, I visited Sarasota for the first time and we had lunch at the Columbia. Although it was the most expensive lunch of the trip, the prices were reasonable IMO and the meal worth every penny. Service was excellent in all respects. We both had the 905 salad, and I had gazpacho soup and the Cuban combo entree. Now I realize that the place was not crowded and this was only one visit, but I am curious why several of the locals on the board regularly pan this place and avoid it. Is it just the Sarasota location or others also? Is your opinion based on more than one visit? Did any young children accompany you during these visits? Was it the food or service or both? And if your opinion is that it recently has "gone downhill", exactly how? Bear in mind that this is a Chowhound board, not a gourmet one. Will appreciate any and all feedback. Thanx.

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  1. The Columbia Restaurant is a good choice. Disclaimer: I wrote the restaurant's history recently, but i've always judged the food as i would any other place. I was a critic of the restaurant 15-20 years ago, but it is not the same restaurant today.

    At its heart, the Columbia serves Tampa-style Cuban comfort food. There are things I avoid: chicken and yellow rice and paella. (both dishes can be tricky and are best made at home!)

    You can make a great snack out of Cuban toast and a bowl of Spanish bean soup or Caldo Gallego with white beans, ham, and greens. The 1905 salad actually makes me want to eat iceberg lettuce on a regular basis. I enjoy all of the fish (especially snapper: adelita and the rich alicante), the salteados (steak or shrimp), the Cuban sandwich, the 1905 grilled shrimp tapas. The shrimp criollo entree is underrated, i enjoy the spicy paprika and plantains. or just go for the palomilla steak with fries. To save money, add a side 1905 salad to your entree instead of a separate order. the combos (pick 2: soup, sandwich, or salad) are good values for appetites lighter than my own. bread pudding for dessert. if you get sangria, go for the gusto and get the premium version--- it is well worth it.

    For dinner, I would mention steak chacho and the veal isabella as faves, while all of the above still applies.

    Who knew that the Columbia Sarasota is the county's oldest restaurant, opened over 50 years ago?

    5 Replies
    1. re: andy huse

      Columbia Sarasota stinks.....
      Attitude, food, cleanliness needs drastic improving.
      Service as well as 1905 salad has always been great, otherwise, forget the menu.
      Their location in St. Armands is fabulous, and a real tourist trap, which is what they are living off. High - high turnover of waiter staff, so this must tell you something. I also am walking distance from my house to Columbia, but choose not to stop at a restaurant that has a "tude".....

      1. re: irwin

        so, are there any locations you DO like, such as Ybor City?
        And which other restaurants at St. Armands would you recommend?

        1. re: KyMikey

          Haven't been to any other Columbia locations other then St. Armands.
          Had lunch yesterday at Cafe E"urope yesterday. Excellent. I was impressed and will return shortly to have dinner.
          15 South is dirty. The italian restaurant across the street from 15 south is ok. Cork is gone. Hemingways is gone. Crab and Fin was good a few weeks ago, but have not tried dinner yet. Blue Dolphin for breakfast and lunch is always great. I think u can take all the rest of the food sellers in the circle and judge them as just fair.

          Blue Dolphin Cafe
          470 John Ringling Blvd, Sarasota, FL 34236

          1. re: irwin

            I LOVE Cafe L'Europe on St. Armand's (I think that's what you were referring to). Beautiful, European-style bistro; service is multi-national and has always been unfailingly good when I've visited. Awesome Lobster Bisque, beautiful Onion Soup Gratinee (served in a huge, baked and hollow-out onion), the Lobster and Shrimp Salad and the Blackened Shrimp and Bourbon Pecan Salad both rawk, nice choice of wines by the's one of my faves in Tampa Bay. I've never had been presented with any dish there that wasn't beautiful, "special" and delicious. I go for lunch several times a year because I can have a couple of glasses of wine and then detox by strolling the Circle for awhile before driving the 50 miles home. I've wanted to try it for dinner for a long time.

            1. re: sweet_polly

              Your right......
              Cafe L'Europe is top choice in St. Armands, but
              Beach Bistro is still the best.

              Beach Bistro
              6600 Gulf Dr, Holmes Beach, FL 34217

    2. I have always enjoyed the Ybor City location. It is a beautiful restaurant and I have always had good food and service there. I think if anything the general perception of the Columbia has gone "uphill" in recent years.

      1. I think the food at Columbia is awful. The service is good. The1905 salad and the sangria are the only things worth having. I recently was asked to meet someone/dine at the St. Petersburg location and that one is no better than Sarasota, although great view.

        Your mileage may vary.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Longboat

          Having eaten at the one in Ybor City and several of the "branch" locations (unfortunately not including Sarasota) -- I've consistently found that the other locations are consistently not as good as the flagship restaurant.

          But I heart the Columbia, and would eat at any of them after a few years of not having any of them near me!

          1. re: sunshine842

            Sarasota and the Ybor city location are worlds apart. l enjoy the meal in Tampa, in Sarasota l tolerate the place and jump on the 1905 salad and cuban sandwich as difficult to mess up.

            1. re: Delucacheesemonger

              that's consistent with the other locations, then.

              Happily, I have the cookbook, so I can recreate the recipes til I get near Tampa again.

        2. I have to admit that I do like the Columbia...and there days when nothing other than a 1905 Salad, a pitcher of Cava Sangria and an order of their White Chocolate Bread Pudding will soothe this savage, hormonal beast. Oh, and I love their empanadas, too...they are the closest to the ones I had in Argentina that I've ever tried. I've eaten at the St. Augustine, the Ybor, the St. Pete Pier and the St. Armand's locations, and I did think the St. Armand's restaurant fell short in a vague, undefinable way...but it could've been an off-day. I had a semi-positive experience at the Ybor outpost once, as well. Overall, however, I think the food is usually pretty, service and ambience are almost always very nice.

          1. I have had excellent experiences at the St. Armands' Columbia. The Circle is electric for people watching in nice weather, and a mojito then a 1905 salad fixed tableside with the garlic shrimp and cuban bread for mopping is a delight. I have 3 of the signature 1905 salad plates at home. (long story). They always have stone crabs on opening day, Oct. 15.
            Their soups are flavorful and hearty, but we don't have that much hot soup weather, except last winter which no one wants again.
            I had the paella at the St. Pete location, no complaints and enough for a go-box. My mojito there was limp, however.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Veggo

              I visited the Ybor Columbia again recently and agree with Andy Huse that it is vastly improved in it's quality of food over the dishes they served in the not so distant past. Having first visited the restaurant in the early 50's with my parents, I still get a warm feeling walking through the simply drips with historical mojo (OK, maybe the server dripped some mojo on the still has lots of mojo)! The 1905 Salad is my perennial favorite.