Tampa has one of the best steakhouses in the country, its the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich, and has great Cuban restaurants. There is no shortage of great restaurants here. But three iconic restaurants stand out and define the Tampa food scene perhaps more than any others. Two have been around for over 100 years and the other is over 65 years old. If you want to experience the history of Tampa through the food, don’t miss these three spots. None of these look fancy from the outside, but they have history and one of them even has what is regarded as a top wine cellar in the entire world.
A staple of the SoHo area of Tampa since 1956 has been Bern’s Steak House. It was started by Bern and Gert Laxer when they had planned to move to California but ran out of money while visiting his grandmother here in Tampa. So they stayed. And Tampa is glad they did.
Bern’s is not only the best in Tampa, but it is consistently named one of the best steak houses in the United States. Their steaks are dry aged in house for 5-8 weeks and charbroiled over hardwood lump charcoal. But they have more than just steak, with an impressive menu that also features seafood, a long list of caviar, and other cuts of meat such as rack of lamb and a dry aged pork chop.
All entrees come with their famous French onion soup au gratin, house salad, onion rings, loaded baked potato, and vegetable of the day. This is a welcome addition, as most high-end steak houses these days seem to make all the sides à la carte for the price of a dinner at a regular spot.
Bern’s World Renowned Wine Cellar
As if great steak wasn’t enough, Bern’s has what has been recognized as one of the largest and most respected wine collections in the world. With over 700,000 bottles in the cellar, they offer around 200 wines by the glass and another 6,800 by the bottle. The wine list is almost 200 pages long, but don’t worry, Head Sommelier Brad Dixon or another team member is there to guide you if you need help. There are a ton of wines priced under$100, but also many more that are priced at several thousand dollars.
The wine cellar is so big that back in 2010 one of their sommeliers found a bottle of 1947 bottle of Chateau Latour that they valued at $30,000 that was hidden behind other bottles. Wow, I usually just hope to find enough change in my couch cushions to buy a cup of coffee.
Harry Wantaugh Dessert Room
To top it off, Bern’s has built a separate dessert room on the second floor where you can choose to go after your main course. The tables are nestled in small booths, so it has a speakeasy feel to it. The menu here includes around 40 homemade desserts, plus cheese selections, coffee, and after dinner wines and spirits. You can make reservations just for the dessert room, which I recommend as an experience in itself.
Bern’s is a bucket list place to come if you are anywhere near Tampa.
Bern’s has been around for a while, but the Columbia Restaurant is fifty years older, as it first opened in 1905. In fact, its Florida’s oldest restaurant. And it’s also the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, as it takes up an entire city block in the Ybor City area of Tampa.
History of Columbia Restaurant
It started off as a small 60-seat corner cafe known for its Cuban coffee and authentic Cuban sandwiches. But to survive Prohibition it merged with the restaurants next door to double its size and then undertook the risky move of building a new dining room with dance floor during the height of the Great Depression. And then when the cigar industry had begun to die and Ybor started to decay with families moving out, the 3rd generation of owners needed some way to bring people back into the area and so they brought in entertainment which is still going strong to this day with Flamenco dancer performing six nights a week.
The 5th generation of family members now help run the business, and it has expended to other locations, including Sarasota, St. Augustine, and other spots in Florida.
The Food at the Columbia Restaurant
Although generally referred to as a Spanish restaurant, the Columbia Restaurant serves both Spanish and Cuban cuisine. This is because Ybor City was an area formed from Spanish, Cuban, and Italian immigrants. Some of the great dishes they serve are Paella “a la Valenciana”, ropa vieja, and their version of boliche, which is a Cuban dish consisting of eye round beef roast stuffed with chorizo.
However, four dishes that I highly recommend are:
- The 1905 Salad: tossed tableside and made with crisp iceberg lettuce, julienne of baked ham, natural Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese, Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire sauce and their famous garlic dressing
- The Original Cuban Sandwich: they still use the original recipe from 1915, made of ham, Genoa salami, mojo roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on the one and only Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Bakery. The Cuban was designated the signature sandwich of Tampa and was invented here in Ybor City. And the Cuban here at Columbia is one of the best.
- Devil Crab Croquetas made with seasoned blue crab meat, paprika and garlic then breaded with Cuban breadcrumbs. These are native to Tampa and are basically a local version of crabcakes that are popular in the crabcakes in the mid-Atlantic states.
- You can end the meal with the traditional flan, but I highly recommend the white chocolate bread pudding. It is made with La Segunda Cuban bread and topped with a Bacardi rum sauce. Its big enough to share.
The Birth of Cuban Bread
Tampa is the home of the Cuban sandwich. And perhaps the most important part of this sandwich is the Cuban bread it’s made on. As Cuban immigrants (as well as Spanish and Sicilian) moved into the Ybor City area to work in the growing cigar industry, they brought with them their foods from home. The first Cuban bread in the area was likely from an established bakery called Ferlita Bakery (also known as La Joven Francesca Bakery).
And then Juan Moré arrived in Tampa. Although he was born in Spain, and then shipped off the Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American war, he developed a love for a Cuban style bread. So in 1915 he and some partners opened up three bakeries (“La Primera“, “La Segunda“, and “La Tercera” which literally mean, “First”, “Second”, and “Third”). When two of them closed, he bought out his partners and grew La Segunda. This is now the largest supplier of Cuban bread in the world,
Traditional Cuban bread is about 3 feet long, and flatter than a normal loaf of bread. A palmetto leaf is placed across the top before baking to give it the signature split down the middle. This leaf is removed before eating. La Segunda claims that only authentic Cuban bread contains the palmetto leaf, and they are one of the very few bakeries to uphold this labor-intensive tradition.
The History of the Cuban Sandwich
The Cuban sandwich wasn’t created in Cuba, but rather in the Ybor City area of Tampa. This area developed as Cubans, Spanish, and Sicilian immigrants moved in to work in the burgeoning cigar industry. Jewish people lived here as well and commonly made a living as merchants. The Cuban sandwich may be based on the popular ham & cheese sandwich, but it combines the cultures of all these groups that built Tampa into what it is today… The Spanish brought the ham, Sicilians the Genoa salami, the Cubans the mojo-marinated pork, and the Germans & Jews the Swiss cheese, pickle, and mustard. This sandwich reflects the community of Tampa.
They also have a great selection of pastries and cookies, so swing by to grab a box of goodies when you come down to Florida to visit Grandma and Grandpa.
Honorable Mention: La Teresita Restaurant
Three spots listed above have made a clear mark on the Tampa food scene and might even be known to foodie’s who have never set foot in Tampa. But because I make the rules, I’m adding a fourth here as an honorable mention: La Terisita.
Maximino and Coralia Capdevila fled Cuba in 1962, and after years of working other jobs decided to buy a small store called “La Teresita Grocery” in 1972. The store grew and also added a coffee and sandwich shop. When demand became too much for their space, they bought an old gas station across the street and turned that into the new sandwich shop. Eventually they sold the original grocery store and expanded the restaurant even more.
La Terisita serves Cuban favorites such as ropa vieja, tamales, and yucca as well as a large assortment of other meats, poultry, and seafood. It’s become one of the most loved local spots for Cuban food and also a place for that presidential candidates have liked to stop by.
Other Classic Tampa Restaurants
Other places like West Tampa Sandwich Shop became my favorite stop for a Cuban sandwich. The presence of tourists has increased since former President Obama stopped in for a honey Cuban, but you’ll still meet regulars who have been going there for 20+ years. It just hasn’t been around long enough yet. And Wright’s Gourmet has been serving some of the best sandwiches around since 1963 (I love both the Beef Martini and the Cuban). Or you could also argue that Donatello deserves recognition for elevating the Italian dining scene in Tampa, inspiring several former employees to go out and open their own restaurants. And then there is Alessi Bakery, which maybe I should have added as a second honorable mention. It’s been serving up delicious pastries since 1912. For a true taste of Tampa, try the guava and cheese turnover or the Scachatta (a Tampa version of Sicilian pizza).
I consider each of these to be places you should also make every attempt to go try as well. But for now, there’s little doubt that three restaurants above (plus one honorable mention) are iconic Tampa institutions that every visitor should try.