Columbia Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Florida, has been around for 109 years for a reason. Originally opened in Tampa, Columbia now has five full restaurant locations around Florida and two small café locations as well. I want to emphasize that this restaurant is not a “chain” restaurant—each location is managed directly by a fifth or sixth generation member of the founding Hernandez family. Lucky for us Jacksonville people, we have one right down the road in St. Augustine. Columbia Restaurant is more than worth the drive and I promise it will be the highlight of any day trip south.
Let me start by emphasizing you WILL need reservations for Columbia no matter the time or day. There was a full lobby when I visited this past Saturday at 330 pm. This is due mainly to their excellent and diverse menu of tapas portions and incredible bar-setting sangria which makes for a perfect afternoon treat. If you have a wait, make sure to enjoy a trip to their gift shop. I always end my trips to Columbia with a purchase of their 1905 salad dressing to take home to try to recreate one of their signature menu items. Also take in the gorgeous architecture and décor. Truly, this is one of the most beautiful restaurants around!
On this trip we started our order with a large pitcher of their imported sangria. For authenticity purposes, this will be the sangria to order. Your waiter/waitress will mix it at the table with imported brandy and imported red wine added to citrus juices and fruit. It is absolutely incredible. Typically a pitcher ($21) will serve 3 people about 1.5 glasses a piece. You also get to enjoy fresh Cuban bread brought to the table for each person and it is absolutely divine. It’s perfectly crusty on the outside and soft on the inside and always fresh from the oven.
For our meal, we ordered from the sandwich and tapas menu since we were there more for a mid day snack. We ordered the original Cuban sandwich ($8.95 for full size), the mahi mahi cubana ($10.95 for full size), the croquetas de langosta ($10.95 for two LARGE lobster croquettes), and two 1905 “side” portion salads for an additional $4.95 per salad. Our food arrived quickly, but still giving us enough time to enjoy the sangria and fresh bread before our meal. The original Cuban sandwich is one of their must order items and it was incredible as always. They press ham, salami, mojo roasted pork, swiss cheese, pickle, and mustard together on buttered Cuban bread perfectly. The bread is crisp and it is pressed just long enough to melt the inside of the sandwich. This is absolutely my favorite Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had. It is authentic and I love that you can taste each ingredient separately in each bite but no ingredient is overpowering. The Cuban sandwich comes with plantain chips as a side. Both my fiancé and his mom were apathetic about the plantain chips and said they were good, they had just had better before. You can also order a half size of the sandwich and a half order of their 1905 salad. The mahi mahi cubana was a surprise hit on the menu. The mahi was so fresh, which I expect from all Florida restaurants but often times I am disappointed. It was smothered in sautéed onions, peppers, and mushrooms and pressed on Cuban bread. It was lightly spicy but not overwhelming. This sandwich is a treat for those who enjoy seafood and reminded me of a Cajun poboy flavor. It also came with the plantain chips, which as I stated, were not a fan favorite. The lobster croquettes were my favorite thing we ordered. They are huge, about the size of a tennis ball, and heavily stuffed with thick chunks of lobster, onions, and a light cream. They are served on a plate with a red gravy that the menu describes as “lobster sauce”. It is a very heavy, rich, tomato based sauce that pairs perfectly with the light flavored lobster. I will absolutely order this either as an appetizer or a tapas meal every time I go. Our always ordered menu item is their 1905 salad and we are not alone in this. USA Today named this as the top salad to make a meal out of a salad and with good reason. The salad has the most incredible dressing that has ever existed. When the salad is served, the waiter/waitress will make it at your table by hand and then toss it into the other salad ingredients. The key to this amazing dressing is the worcheshire sauce. It also heavy on the garlic, but that taste is subdued with the salad ingredients. The 1905 salad has lettuce, ham, swiss cheese, tomato, olives, and romano cheese. Fair warning: while you can buy the salad dressing in the gift shop, it will never be as good as them mixing it at the table. We have never left Columbia without scraping our plates to make sure no salad was wasted. The recipe is unchanged since the 1940s and it is clear why!
Service at Columbia Restaurant always parallels the excellent food. Our waiter was courteous, and even though we were on the third floor, he made quick trips to refill water in less time than you would expect if he was serving us on the first floor. He praised our menu choices (but really I don’t think you can go wrong) and he confided that the mahi mahi cubana was actually his favorite menu item. He mixed our sangria and our salads impeccably. You can tell that the staff at the Columbia love their job. They don’t just deliver food to the table and disappear, they actually take the time to create the food for you, and that is something very special in a dining experience.
I highly recommend the Columbia restaurant on all aspects as one of the best restaurants in St. Augustine. It is honestly one of my personal top fives that I’ve been to in Florida. The service, food, and atmosphere are unparalleled. It is evident in every aspect of their restaurant that they uphold the traditions of their Cuban heritage. Everyone should leave here with an excellent appreciation of what true Cuban cuisine should be.