Old-fashioned Passion

One thing you can say about Columbia Restaurant (651 Okeechobee Blvd. West Palm Beach, 561-820-9373): It's freaking ancient. If this place were human, we'd be wheeling it out for Fourth of July parades and interviewing it on NPR. The original Columbia in Tampa is, in fact, among the oldest restaurants in Florida; founded in 1905. Columbia has been fruitful and multiplied in its century on Earth -- there are now seven locations around Florida; the newest opened four months ago at CityPlace. We're also well into the sixth generation of the Hernandez/Gonzmart family that founded the empire. The Gonzmart kids cut their teeth on the kitchen's wooden spoons, trained in restaurants and management schools around the globe, and came home to carry the torch.

Wildly successful, long-lived restaurants in Florida are rare. But walk into the newest addition to the Columbia family at CityPlace and you'll understand why this one has flourished. The place is gloriously pretty, from the hand-painted, imported Spanish tiles to the wrought-iron chandeliers, the cozy leather banquettes, and the glassed-in wine cooler. It has charm: the framed family photos on the walls, the little shop selling Spanish china. It has a terrific list of Spanish wines, a cigar bar, and an enticing menu of standard Spanish/Cuban specialties. Sample palomilla with mojo crudo ($17.95), paellas ($22.95 to 25.95), red snapper Alicante ($21.95), and original family recipes like the devil crab croquettes ($7.95), a 1905 salad ($7.95), and a sherry-soaked Spanish sponge cake ($5.95). Plus fresh seafood, char-grilled steaks, and filet mignon flambéed tableside.

The food is of varying quality -- the 1905 salad, tossed at the table with a garlic and Worcestershire vinaigrette, was cold, crunchy, tart, and delicious. A steaming half loaf of Cuban bread wrapped in paper was impossible to stop eating. A combination plate of churrasco tenderloin, crab cakes, and rice was great on the beef, middling on the crab cakes. But it's the service that sets Columbia apart. The management and servers here are just nice -- attentive, friendly without being overbearing. A manager stopped by to chat, make recommendations, and tell us a bit about Columbia's history. Our waiter was helpful with the menu and never batted an eye when we wanted to split everything. You get the feeling they simply expect you'll become a regular. And what with those $50, four-course wine dinners they serve nightly, I probably will.

 
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