By Derek Herscovici • Photography by Gabriel Burgos
A lifelong Tampa native, Richard Gonzmart grew up in the historic Tampa Heights neighborhood, just blocks from where a defunct park sat for decades. That park was redeveloped into the beautiful Water Works Park, and was the terminus of the newly completed Riverwalk.
The incentive to put one restaurant on the Riverwalk was high for the 4th-generation owner and president of the Columbia Restaurant. But to have two? “The Tampa Riverwalk has been a project 40 years in the making, one that turns downtown Tampa toward the Hillsborough River and not away from it,” said Michael Kilgore, Chief Marketing Officer for the Columbia Restaurant Group. “Now, with the Columbia Café and Ulële, we anchor both ends of the Riverwalk, with waterfront locations.”
Gonzmart’s first concept on the Riverwalk was the Columbia Café, a scaled down version of the landmark Tampa restaurant. The Columbia Café is housed on the ground floor of the Tampa Bay History Center near the Channel District.
“At 111 years old, the Columbia is the oldest restaurant in Florida and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world,” Kilgore said. “The Gonzmart family agreed to put a café in the History Center if it were built, [and] it was a natural fit. Our history and Tampa’s are intertwined. The kitchen is smaller and slightly abbreviated, but we deliver the same quality and service.” With the 2009 arrival of the Tampa Bay History Center, Gonzmart had one foot at the southeastern end of the Riverwalk. Upon Ulële’s grand opening in 2014, Gonzmart’s Columbia Restaurant Group owned the north end too. His two restaurants are now connected by the beautiful, and newly completed 2.2-mile waterfront walkway.
Inspired by several trips to Canada in recent years, Gonzmart knew he wanted to create a “native-inspired” menu for a restaurant, preferably on the water, Kilgore said. When Mayor Bob Buckhorn issued requests for proposals for the newly completed Water Works Park site, Gonzmart won the bid with his Ulele concept. It was the perfect for his native-inspired restaurant idea. Ulële’s Executive Chef, Eric Lackey chose his Barbacoa grilled Charbroiled Oysters as the featured summer dish for our magazine’s Annual Restaurant Edition. The oysters are grilled with garlic butter and grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses, combining the traditional Tocobaga Indian harvest with Spanish and Italian influences.
“The Ulële menu was developed over a year of testing with Richard Gonzmart, Executive Chef Eric Lackey and Managing Partner Keith Sedita,” Kilgore said. “It features ingredients that might have been eaten by Native Americans, but the recipes have been filtered through generations of settlers and explorers.”
Executive Chef Steven Lyman’s dish of choice for the Columbia Café is the fabled “1905” Salad, a lush mix of iceberg lettuce, baked ham, Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese and their signature garlic dressing. Although recipes are changed or adapted occasionally at the Columbia, many of its recipes, like paella, roast pork, snapper, and black beans and rice are staples that have satisfied literally generations of customers. Asked what was next for the Columbia Restaurant Group on the Riverwalk, Kilgore would only say “wait and see.”