Columbia, Tampa, Florida

Cuban food is SOOOO GOOD in Florida! And cheap! In Tampa, where the Cuban sandwich as we know it (aka the Cubano) was invented, there are plenty of options to choose from for Cuban food. Brocato’s has been making great sandwiches since 1948, and their Cuban is one of the best in the Tampa Bay area. I had a great Cuban media noche sandwich (midnight sandwich, a Cubano on egg bread) in downtown St. Petersburg at the award-winning Bodega. And if you are on a layover and short on time there are two casual restaurants not far from the airport which I was able to try on a recent visit and recommend highly for Cuban food: Arco-Iris and La Teresita (even if you are not in a hurry they are both well worth seeking out). But for the best atmosphere with your Cuban (and Spanish) food Columbia is the place!



photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


Established in Ybor City in 1905, Columbia is the oldest restaurant in Florida (they also claim to be the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, taking up an entire city block!). Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. opened the bar and café to serve the Cuban and Spanish cigar workers in the neighborhood (at its manufacturing peak in 1929 Ybor City’s cigar factories produced 500 million cigars!).


Columbia entrance - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Columbia entrance – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


Original bar and cafe - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Original 1905 bar and café – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


In 1930 Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. passed away and his son Casimiro Hernandez, Jr. took over running Columbia. In 1935 the Don Quixote Room was added, which was the first air-conditioned dining room in Tampa. It has Moorish doorways, a 19th-century chandelier, and a balcony with additional seating.


doorway into Don Quixote Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

doorway into Don Quixote Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


chandelier in the Don Quixote Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

chandelier in the Don Quixote Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


In 1937 Casimiro Hernandez, Jr. added the Patio Room, an Andalusia style dining area.


patio room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

patio room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


Casimiro and his wife Carmen had a daughter, Adele, a Julliard-trained concert pianist, who married Cesar Gonzmart, a concert violinist, in 1946. Cesar is hired to help run the restaurant. He expands further, adding the Siboney Room, a 300-seat showroom with top Latin entertainers, to help attract customers to the declining neighborhood.


The Red Room, which I believe dates back to the 1950s - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

The Red Room, which I believe dates back to the 1950s – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


The Red Room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

The Red Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


In 1959 the Columbia Restaurant opened in Sarasota, which is now Sarasota’s oldest restaurant. In 1962 Casimiro Hernandez, Jr. passed away. Cesar and Adela Gonzmart run the restaurant until 1970, when their sons Richard and Casey join them in operations. In the 1980s locations are added in St. Augustine and Clearwater Beach at Sand Key and in 1997 a fifth location is opened in Celebration, Florida. Columbia cafes have also opened recently at the Tampa History Center and the Tampa Airport. In 1992 Cesar passed away and his sons Richard and Casey, the 4th generation, run the restaurant today with many family members also in the restaurant’s employ. In 2004 much of the restaurant was renovated, with new dining rooms and a new kitchen added, but the older dining rooms thankfully remain.


photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


The menu, which has a beautiful cover portraying Columbus’ voyage, is loaded with Spanish and Cuban dishes. There are too many to list, but they are famous for their “1905 Salad”, a basic chef salad made into something special by their signature garlic dressing prepared tableside. The salad was tempting, but I opted for a starter of a deviled crab croquette (croqueta de alba) because I was excited to try it. A Tampa specialty since the Great Depression, it is blue crab meat with garlic and paprika rolled into an elongated ball, coated in bread crumbs and fried. The weather outside was hot so I ordered a large bowl of gazpacho, a chilled tomato-based Spanish soup served with fresh chopped vegetables and croutons, which are added by the server tableside (I appreciated the use of tableside flourishes by the classic waiters in dinner jackets and bow ties). Very delicious and refreshing! My friend loved his Salteado, a stir-fry type dish credited to Chinese immigrants in Cuba made with olive oil, garlic, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, potatoes, chorizo, red wine, and your choice of chicken beef or shrimp (served with yellow rice). His wife enjoyed the roast pork, which is marinated in citrus juice and roasted, then sliced and cooked some more in gravy until very tender. Their Cuban sandwich is made with Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Bakery, in Ybor City since 1915! Cuban bread is also served warm with every meal. For dessert their flan (from a 1933 family recipe) and their white chocolate bread pudding are legendary.


sangria pitchers - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

sangria pitchers – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


They serve mojitos and sangria, by the pitcher or glass, as well as cocktails. And they have a giant wine list of 234 pages, featuring many fine Spanish and California wines.


some of the press on Columbia restaurant is displayed in the original cafe dining room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

some of the press about Columbia restaurant is displayed in the original café dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


Take your time and explore this enormous restaurant complex. There are historical photos and documents in the halls, and multiple dining rooms, some for private functions. Even the dining rooms added in 2004 are beautiful.


new dining room added in 2004 - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

new dining room added in 2004 – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


And there is magnificent tile work on the outside of the building.


one of the tile murals on the building's facade - photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

one of the tile murals on the building’s façade – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


The Columbia restaurant is a true gem in Florida that is a must-visit dining experience!


2117 E 7th Ave, Tampa, FL 33605
(813) 248-4961
Open Mon-Thu 11:00am-10:00pm, Fri-Sat 11:00am-11:00pm, Sun 10:30am-9:00pm


Stroud’s, Kansas City, Missouri

Who makes the best fried chicken in the U.S.? In 2006 I thought I found the answer when I ate at the original Gus’s in Mason, TN, outside Memphis (since 1973). I love Gus’s spicy, crispy skin (the chicken soaks overnight in spicy batter and is cooked in custom cast iron fryers) so I will go back again. I only hope their expansion into 14 locations in 8 states hasn’t hurt the quality.

Now I’m not so sure if Gus’s is still the best, after having recently been to Stroud’s in Kansas City!


Original Stroud's - photo by

Original Stroud’s – image by


In 1933 when Prohibition ended Guy and Helen Stroud opened a bar-be-que shack at 85th Ave. and Troost St. in Kansas City. In WWII beef was hard to get so Helen Stroud started making pan-fried chicken dinners, which sold for 35 cents. The roadhouse’s popularity grew and grew until 1977, when Mike Donegan and Jim Hogan, 2 young bartenders at Kelly’s Westport Inn (the oldest bar in town), bought Stroud’s. In 1983 the partners, along with Mike’s brother Dennis, bought Sandy’s Oak Ridge Manor, a German – American restaurant in a historic house in north Kansas City for a second Stroud’s location, often called Stroud’s North. A third location opened in Wichita, Kansas, in 1992.


Sandy's Oak Ridge Manor postcard

Sandy’s Oak Ridge Manor postcard – image by the Kansas City Public Library


The original roadhouse location, with its creaky wood floors and piano players, sadly closed in 2006 for the widening of 85th Street, relocating into a new building in Fairway, Kansas in 2008 (go here to see some of the signage from the original Stroud’s). In 2013 the KC Hopps restaurant group partnered with Mike Donegan to open the newest Stroud’s in Overland Park, Kansas in 2014. Jim Hogan sold his share in 2000 and Dennis Donegan passed away in 2004, but Mike Donegan continues to run Stroud’s, keeping the same home style food, friendly service, and old-fashioned country atmosphere in all Stroud’s locations.


Stroud's Oak Ridge Manor - photo by Stroud's North facebook page

Stroud’s Oak Ridge Manor – photo by Stroud’s North facebook page


On my recent visit I chose the Stroud’s North Oak Ridge Manor location over the other restaurants because it’s the oldest Stroud’s location and because of the building’s history  (the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Sites in 1979). Originally a two-room log cabin built by homesteader David Hale in 1829, the cabin was bought in 1844 by Dr. James Howard Compton, who expanded it into a 10-room house for his growing family and often gave lavish parties for their large extended family and circle of friends (when you enter the foyer of the restaurant today you can see that you are in the original cabin). In 1954 Darwin and Louise Sandstrom purchased the large home from the Compton family, opening a German – American restaurant called Sandy’s Oak Ridge Manor in the house. On the grounds of the restaurant was the statue Justice (see postcard above) from the 1859 Clay County Courthouse, which was salvaged when the courthouse was razed (now on display at the Clay County Museum). In 1983 the restaurant became Stroud’s second location.


photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

fried chicken dinner with all the fixin’s – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

chicken noodle soup – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


Fried chicken dinners are served family-style, brought on large platters to your table. Dinner comes with choice of homemade soup or salad, choice of potato (baked, mashed, french fries, or cottage fries), green beans, and homemade cinnamon rolls.

The fried chicken is simply coated with flour, salt, pepper, and paprika and fried in skillets by hand, which Stroud’s says makes for the juiciest chicken (and provides drippings for their excellent cream gravy). I couldn’t agree more. I’m usually a dark meat man, but I had a breast and found it very juicy and tender. Delicious!



photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

tower of fried chicken – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


frying the chicken at Stroud's - photo by Stroud's North facebook page

frying the chicken at Stroud’s – photo by Stroud’s North facebook page


Stroud's cinnamon rolls - photo by Gareth Imparato in Pinterest

Stroud’s cinnamon rolls – photo by Gareth Imparato in Pinterest

We loved their dark brown french fries and mashed potatoes with gravy, but those cinnamon rolls are out-of-this-world! They are not exactly like traditional cinnamon rolls which are rolled up, cut and baked. These are more like big, fluffy, sweet dinner rolls with a coating of sweet cinnamon goodness and pockets of gooey melted cinnamon-sugar-butter. Best served hot at the restaurant but take some home for breakfast too!


Stroud’s menu also includes chicken fried steak, Kansas City strip steak, pan-fried pork chops, and some seafood entrees. But you are going for THE best fried chicken in the U.S., right?

Stroud’s is a recipient of the James Beard Award for Excellence in the “Home Style” category, the first restaurant to win in that category.


Stroud’s Oak Ridge Manor
5410 NE Oak Ridge Dr, Kansas City, MO 64119
(816) 454-9600
Open Mon-Thu 5pm-9:30pm, Fri 11am-10pm, Sat 2pm-10pm, Sun 11am-9:30pm



Sam’s Hof Brau, Sacramento, California – CLOSED

Cafeterias used to be everywhere in this country. (For those who aren’t familiar with the term, they are restaurants that serve you food from a buffet in a line formation, but unlike a buffet, such as those popular in Las Vegas and around the country, you don’t primarily serve yourself). Nowadays they are few and far between. In California in the late 1940s and the 1950s they evolved into a popular style called a hofbrau (from the German word for a royal brewery) probably because they usually served beer as well as hearty food.

The earliest hofbrau that is still open is Tommy’s Joynt in San Francisco. Still wonderfully original and filled with clutter it serves good, filling food at low prices (perhaps the best value in the city). In 1954 the first Harry’s Hof Brau opened in Redwood City, now a small chain of newer hofbraus owned by Harry’s son Larry Kramer (the original Redwood City location is still open but has been remodeled). Famous ball player, coach, and manager Francis ‘Lefty’ O’Doul opened his eponymous hofbrau / sports bar in 1958 in San Francisco (still open and it sill has some charm but every time I go there for some tasty chow it seems there are more TVs than before). And across the bay in Berkeley Brennan’s opened its Irish style hofbrau in 1959 (still owned by the same family, it moved in 2008 into the historic 1913 Southern Pacific Railroad Station next door to the original location, but it’s also filled with more TVs than I can stand).


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

Sam’s Hof Brau, Sacramento – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


In 1955 Sam Gordon opened his first Hof Brau in Sacramento at 17th and J streets (it closed in 1993 and became Hamburger Mary’s, then Hamburger Patties, and still has the original chef neon sign from Sam’s Hof Brau).


Sam's Ranch Wagon

In 1956 he opened Sam’s Original Ranch Wagon at 817 Broadway with a Western theme in the two dining rooms, the Bonanza Room and the Ranch Wagon Room, and the cocktail lounge named the Gold Discovery Room. The sign for the restaurant was an eye grabber!


Sam's Ranch Wagon sign

Sam’s Ranch Wagon sign via atomicpear on Flickr


In 1957 Sam Gordon opened another Hof Brau in downtown Sacramento at 815 L St. in a Bavarian theme. Then in 1960 he opened his fancier restaurant, Sam’s Rancho Villa, at 2380 Fair Oaks Blvd., which featured three dining rooms, the Candlelight, the Continental, and the Venetian, and two cocktail lounges, the Capri and the Eden Roc (wow, I would have loved to have seen this place!). Although it was swanky, they still served food cafeteria style.


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

Sam’s Hof Brau serving area – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


In 1962 he opened Sam’s Plaza Hof Brau in the Plaza Shopping Center at 2500 Watt Ave., the only Sam’s Hof Brau still open in Northern California. The restaurant is mostly original, except for a few TVs by the bar. At the front is the food line with the servers and a big pickle slice decanter. On the right side of the large main dining room is the long bar with a large oil painting of the Golden Spike ceremony when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

painting over bar – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


The main dining room is decorated Victorian style with wood-paneled walls filled with historic photos of Sacramento, brass railings, red flocked wallpaper, oil paintings, and chandeliers and ceiling fans (that are much too bright, in my opinion). The middle of the room has wooden booths and the side opposite the bar has tables on a raised area (see photo).


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

Sam’s Hof Brau dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


In back is another dining room with cozy wooden booths along the sides of the room with tables in the middle. In the far back is a banquet room. It’s a huge place as you can see in this outside side view.


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


The menu at Sam’s is hearty and filling, perhaps somewhat plain, but it’s real comfort food. Roasted, carved meats are the specialty, served in “sam’wiches” or as entrees with choice of two sides. Meats include roast beef, pastrami, corned beef, turkey, prime rib, and tri tip. Desserts are made fresh daily.


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

corned beef entree with mashed potatoes, green beans, and a dinner roll – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


Later in 1962 Sam Gordon opened a circus-themed Googie restaurant called Sam’s Big Top at 16th and K St. in Sacramento. It was designed by Armet and Davis, architects who designed many Googie restaurants. Several of their restaurants are in the Los Angeles area: Pann’s Coffee Shop (open), Johnie’s (closed but standing), Mel’s in Sherman Oaks (open; formerly Kerry’s), and Norms on La Cienega (open). Sam’s Big Top at 16th and K is gone but the second Sam’s Big Top at 2721 El Camino (opened around 1966-67) still stands and is now a Country Waffles restaurant. In 1963 Sam Gordon opened Sam’s Town entertainment complex on US highway 50 (closed in 2000). Sam’s Hof Brau expanded to Auburn, Oakland, Portland, and Los Angeles (all closed except LA’s, which still operates as Sam’s Hof Brau but as an adult club with topless dancers!). The Denny’s Coffee Shop chain took over most of the Sam’s locations in the 1970s and Sam Gordon passed away in 1998. But the Sam’s Hof Brau on Watt Ave. hung in there, leased from Denny’s from 1991-2007 as Plaza Hof Brau, then renamed back to Sam’s Hof Brau in 2009 after it was purchased by the Hof Brau Restaurant Group. Thank goodness we still can visit this Sam’s, pretty much all that remains of Sam Gordon’s once-mighty hofbrau empire.


Sam's Hof Brau, Los Angeles

Sam’s Hof Brau, Los Angeles


Sam’s Hof Brau
2500 Watt Ave, Sacramento, CA 95821
(916) 482-2175
Open Sun-Wed 10:30am-9pm, Thu-Sat 10:30am-10pm


Plaza III, Kansas City, Missouri – CLOSED

Recently I visited Kansas City for the first time after having wanted to go for the last several years to experience the Paris of the Plains (Kansas City has more public fountains than any city except Rome). I loved it! It was easy to get around (by car), downtown is thriving, there are beautiful homes all over the place, and some fine museums. Then there’s the food! Bar-be-que, burgers, bar-be-que, chili, bar-be-que…you get the picture. And I had to get a Kansas City steak, in a city that was once a major beef producing city. At its peak in the 1920s Kansas City’s stockyards were second only in size to Chicago’s. Following a flood in 1951 they began their decline until they closed in 1991.


Plaza III Steakhouse

photo by t-mizo on Flickr


In 1961 Paul Robinson, manager of the Golden Ox Steakhouse in Kansas City (now closed but due to reopen later this year), met Joe Gilbert, founder of the Four Winds Restaurant at the Kansas City Downtown Airport (now closed but the TWA Museum there is well worth a visit). They teamed up with Joe’s son Bill Gilbert and opened the Plaza III in 1963 in Country Club Plaza, a lovely Spanish style outdoor shopping center designed by J. C. Nichols and architect Edward Buehler Delk that opened in 1923, which is considered the first planned shopping center in the U.S.


Ad from 1971

Ad from 1971


In 1972 the Gilbert-Robinson group opened a more casual restaurant next door to the Plaza III in an old clothing store called Tom Houlihan’s, naming it Houlihan’s Old Place. That restaurant eventually expanded in the Houlihan’s chain of restaurants, numbering 79 locations by 2012. The original Houlihan’s relocated in 2003 to nearby Fairway, Kansas. Plaza III ‘s dining rooms (which started out decorated in 60s Spanish) were remodeled in 1986 in a classic steakhouse look with lots of wood, dark brown leather booths, brass lamps, and potted palms. The large downstairs space was a disco in the 70s, then a series of clubs until its remodel in 2005 for use as additional dining space for the restaurant, with live jazz on weekend nights.


Plaza III Steakhouse

dining room


The Plaza III menu is classic steakhouse all the way. First comes out a chilled relish tray. Their famous steak soup is a must. It’s a rich, thick, dark brown stew with large chunks of tender steak and vegetables. A bowl would be enough for a meal.


Plaza III Steakhouse

beef soup – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


Steaks are à la carte, USDA Prime, wet aged, and a presented tableside wrapped in plastic before you choose one. I had the famous Kansas City Strip, center cut, because “when in Rome…”, which comes in two sizes (I got the large despite having three lunches earlier. I’m not kidding.). Other options are the ribeye (two sizes), porterhouse, t-bone, filet mignon (two sizes), strip steak au poivre (brandy cream sauce), strip steak au fromage (with Roquefort), tenderloin Oscar, twin filet medallions, and prime rib in two sizes. I’m getting hungry! There are also lamb, veal, chicken, and seafood choices, and many surf & turf combinations available. Steaks come with a choice of béarnaise or au poivre sauce if desired. Sides are extra but come in two sizes, most at $5 & $9. Don’t forget to order chocolate or Grand Marnier soufflé when you order your steak so it will be ready by the time you’re ready for dessert. Both their regular and reserve wine lists have won awards.


Plaza III Steakhouse

I didn’t get a good photo of my steak but it looked like this – photo via the Plaza III facebook page


The Plaza III has had serious steakhouse competition on Country Club Plaza over the years but it has stood the test of time. In 2014 the chain steakhouse Ruth’s Chris closed on the Plaza after 17 years. I call that progress.


Plaza III Steakhouse
4749 Pennsylvania Ave, Kansas City, MO 64112
(816) 753-0000
Open Mon-Thu 11:00am-10:00pm, Fri-Sat 11:00am-11:00pm, Sun 5:00pm-9:00pm


Hugo’s Cellar, Las Vegas, Nevada

If you’re looking for a true Continental restaurant in Las Vegas, there is only one: Hugo’s Cellar. It’s a great pick if you want gracious table-side service, flambé dishes, and an old-fashioned (i.e. old school) dining experience.


Hugo's Cellar Las Vegas

dining room


Hugo’s Cellar’s is located (you guessed it) beneath street level, under the main casino at the Four Queens in downtown. Enter the noisy casino from hectic Fremont Street, look for the restaurant’s staircase in the back of the casino, and descend into a more peaceful and genteel world. There is a small bar and cocktail lounge in the front, and the maître d’hôtel‘s stand, where you will be greeted and the ladies presented with a long-stemmed rose. The dining room is decorated with brick, thick wooden beams on the ceiling, green lanterns and Tiffany lamps. It has an elegant old-fashioned feel that seems older than its origin in 1973 as Hugo’s Rotisserie (when the hotel was owned by Hyatt Hotels). The Four Queens has changed hands a couple of times since then but Hugo’s has remained (it was renamed Hugo’s Cellar about 30 years ago). The most recent owner of the hotel vowed never to change Hugo’s – bravo!


Hugo's Cellar Las Vegas

the martini came with a refill!


The tuxedoed waiters are all highly professional, some with decades of service at Hugo’s. Waiter Victor Hutchings has been with the restaurant for 39 years and sommelier Jon Simmons for 32 years (when he started in 1984 he was one of only three sommeliers in Las Vegas restaurants). Service was very attentive and gracious, with multiple staff attending to our table of three.


Hugo's Cellar Las Vegas

waiter preparing table-side duckling anise flambé


The menu is truly Continental, featuring such classics as duckling anise flambé, veal Oscar, chicken champignon, and beef Wellington. But it’s also a fine steakhouse with char-broiled steaks aged 28 days, as well as prime rib and seafood entrees. All entrees include a salad prepared table-side how you like it from a rolling cart, vegetables, potatoes or rice, delicious homemade bread and cheese-toasted lavosh, dessert of chocolate dipped strawberries and fruit, and bottled water. Service was impeccable, with multiple waiters attending to our every need.


Hugo's Cellar Las Vegas

duckling anise flambé


After-dinner fruit is included with your meal but you should definitely try one the flaming table-side desserts like bananas Foster or cherries jubilee!


The next time you are in Las Vegas, you should check out downtown. There are lots of hotels (I like Main Street Station), the fascinating Mob Museum, a few good cocktail bars, a shopping/food/entertainment center called Container Park, and some great classic restaurants like Hugo’s Cellar and Binion’s Ranch Steakhouse (now called Top of Binion’s but I prefer the older name), which I didn’t visit this trip but I have dined at before. On my last three visits to Las Vegas I mostly avoided the Strip and I didn’t miss it at all.


Hugo’s Cellar
202 Fremont St, Las Vegas, NV 89101
Open 5:00pm – 10:00pm daily