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The Carefree Traveler Magazine

6th Feature Article

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Columbia Restaurant-- Ybor City

Cesar Gonzmart
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Cesar Gonzmart and the Columbia Restaurant

Richard L. Servis Jr.

Cesar Gonzmart did not start out to be a restaurateur and suave entertainer. His talent and early effort was to become a successful musician. When Cesar was very young, his mother wanted him to be a successful musician and a leading citizen. His father wanted him to be a successful businessman.

Cesar Gonzmart was born Cesar Gonzalez, March 6, 1920. The family home was on the corner of Cypress and Armenia Avenue in Tampa, Florida. Cesar was the son of Marcelino Gonzalez, an immigrant from Spain who migrated from New York City. He was a selector of fine cigars for the Perfecto Garcia cigar factory. His mother was Aurora Martinez Gonzalez.

When young Cesar was three years old he went on a cruise to Cuba with his mother, aunt and grandmother. He was very impressed by a violinist on the cruise, and at age six began music lessons. Cesar was an above-average student, both in music, and in school. He graduated from Hillsborough High School after only 2 1/2 years, and earned a scholarship to Stetson University. Cesar sat in as a substitute in the Columbia Restaurant orchestra at $20 per week when he was only 15 years old. He stayed for about three months.

By the time Cesar was 18, he was playing as violin soloist with symphony orchestras. Then he went to Havana, Cuba, where he earned a doctorate in music at the University of Havana, Cuba. At age 21, he served as concertmaster with the Havana, Cuba Symphony Orchestra. While in Cuba, he married a Cuban actress. It was there that Cesar's first son was born, Cesar Gonzalez, Jr. (Cesar Gonzalez, Jr. is a career diplomat with the U.S. State Department). At this point, Cesar had not changed his name.

Cesar Gonzalez, as he was then known, started his own orchestra when he was in his early twenties, which he called, "Cesar Gonzalez and His Magic Violins." While still in his twenties, he traveled around the world serving as concert violinist, earning about $75,000 per year. Needless to say, that was big money in the 1940's.

It was in those days, years ago, when Cesar Gonzalez changed his name to Gonzmart.
In an interview later in his life he stated, "Because the name Gonzalez, my father's surname, and Martinez, my mother's surname, was common among Spanish names, I took the "Gonz" from Gonzalez, and the "Mart" from Martinez, and created Cesar Gonzmart. I wanted to be independent and confused with nobody." I started my own family name." It's the only known family name of Gonzmart.

In 1946, Gonzmart married Adela Hernandez, who was once referred to as his "childhood partner in music", she on the piano, and he on the violin.

Adela graduated from the Julliard School of Music in New York. Adela became an accomplished concert pianist who also traveled the world with leading orchestras. She also appeared at Carnegie Hall.

Adela was the granddaughter of the founder of the Columbia, Casmiro Hernandez, Sr., "King of Ybor City." (The stolen quote couldn't be said any better).

Casmiro Hernandez, Sr. came to America in 1905 from turmoil-torn Spain. Adela's father, Casmiro Hernandez, Jr. was 12 years old at the time. They came via New York to Ybor City. Across the street from where they lived was a small bar struggling to survive. Hernandez, Sr. saw the need for a restaurant in the fast growing community, and with the financial help of a friend, bought the building. He immediately started serving sandwiches, and then added Spanish bean soup. (It is interesting to note that Spanish bean soup did not exist anywhere before that time-- even in Spain. Casmiro Hernandez, Sr. invented it).

Bachelors at first could get a free lunch with their purchased drinks. Later, he offered meals for $18 per month. Needless to say, the business grew, and by 1919 it was time to expand. He bought the restaurant next door, signing the owner into a partnership.

It was during the restaurant expansion period when Casmiro, Jr. joined his father in the business. Proud of the successful business, and the freedom of America, Casmiro, Sr. named the restaurant, "Columbia", being touched by the song, "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean", and thoughts of Christopher Columbus. Later, he would alter the line to "Columbia the Gem of Spanish Restaurants" as a motto. The tall ship "Columbia",is the logo of the Columbia Restaurant today, and appears on their matchboxes.

Casmiro Hernandez, Sr. died if a heart attack in 1929, at age 59, leaving Adela's father with a mountain of debts. Her grandfather was a "big spender." Also, the country was in the the beginning stages of the depression. Adela's father was ready to close the Columbia, and in fact had given one of his employees money to buy nails to bar the doors. The man came back with his life's savings, stating that the Columbia couldn't close, because it was so necessary to all of them. Casmiro, Jr. couldn't accept the money, but kept the doors open-- and business did get better. It got so much better that Ybor city was ready for a luxurious air conditioned dining hall with live entertainment.

With no capital, he convinced the local banker for a $35,000 expansion loan. The banker agreed-- sealed by a gentleman's handshake! In 1936, the "Don Quixote Room", was ornately completed, with 16 foot ceiling, elevated dance floor, heavy wooden doors, wrought iron and tile, statues, antiques, and other accessories from Spain. The room opened on Thanksgiving Day. (Don Quixote was Casmiro Hernandez' hero).

Much more could be said about both Casmiro Hernandez Sr., and Casmiro Hernandez, Jr. of Columbia, and his heirs, but this is the story of Cesar Gonzmart.

Getting back to Cesar and Adela's music careers, Cesar and Adela Gonzmart traveled the country together with their young son "Casey." It was difficult trying to be a "family", staying in hotels, cooking on hotplates, "on the road" much of the time.

In 1953, Adela's ailing father convinced Cesar to learn the restaurant business and settle down with the family. Which he did. He started working with Casmiro Hernandez, Jr. at the Columbia for $150 per week. This was quite a reduction in income from his $75,000 per year, but he accepted it gracefully as quoted later: "It was quite a letdown from what I was accustomed to. We had a small child, though, and travel made it more difficult for my wife and I to be together, keeping the baby in a hotel room."

Cesarlearned the business quickly, and he and Adela began to have some input in the decisions of the Columbia. In 1956, they convinced her father to build another large room, the "Siboney Room", named after an extinct Florida Indian tribe. It's also the name of a song by a Cuban composer. In an interview before his death, Cesar Gonzmart's pride was evident when he said: "In 1955 I did my first expansion, a 400-seat supper club. We started out with great fanfare, packed to capacity. Center stage, with my violin and the orchestra backing me. I played musical show tunes with the style of a concert violinist with a lot of schmaltz and a lot of Liberace...."

Referring to the 1960's, Cesar recalled, "We went through many crises at the Columbia. We turned it around when I took the violinists and and other instrumentalists off the stage and had them stroll the restaurant. It was an overnight success in the "60's. Me, I liked nothing better than to play a sweet song to a lady, stop momentarily to kiss her hand, then play sweetly to her again and get schmaltzy." When Adela's father died in 1961,Cesar was faced with the same kind of debts that her father did when her grandfather died.

If you were among the more fortunate, and saw Cesar performing, you could see the man within the performer. After his death, Adele Gonzmart spoke this way of him: "My husband was an elegant man, and he knew it. He loved the stage, and he was always on it. He loved music and the theater, and he came to love the business of the Columbia. We all did, and we all contributed ideas for the dishes our restaurant made famous. Cesar was the proudest man I ever met. He was prouder of his sons than any father I ever knew.

In the outside world, others spoke of him in other complimentary ways.
Mayor Dick Greco praised him by saying: "Cesar was in love with Tampa and with Ybor City, with his restaurants, with entertaining. He was Tampa. He was Ybor City. We are what we have become in large part because of the gifts of Cesar Gonzmart."
Businessman Phil Alessi said in part: "He kissed the hands of women, and cajoled the men. I envied his talents. And he has left his heritage with his boys."
Former Mayor Sandy Freeman said: "We lost a big chunk of Tampa, and a bigger chunk of Ybor City when we lost Cesar Gonzmart. He was my friend,my family's friend, and my neighbor for a long time, I believe he would have done anything for this place where he lived-- and he did plenty."

When Cesar first joined Adela's father in the Columbia, the restaurant was grossing $1 million per year. Today, the Columbia chain of six restaurants in various cities grossed $42 million in 1991.

Cesar and Adela visited Spain in 1971, and the Baron Angel Santiago was head of the organization honoring San'Yago, patron Saint of Spain, founded in the year, 1150. Angel Santiago presented Cesar the status of "Knight of San'Yago. The following year, Cesar was instrumental in persuading Angel Santiago to come to Tampa and officially recognize the local Krewe of the Knights of San'Yago. Cesar became the second "King of San'Yago. There is a room in the Columbia dedicated to that organization.

Many great celebrities dined at the Columbia over the years. Personalites such as; President John F. Kennedy, Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, Joe DiMaggio, Gig Young, Liberace, and Generalissimo Francisco Franco. One of the first chefs was Pijuan, who cooked for King Alfonso XIII of Spain. Pijuan contributed a special pompano pappillot, and a steak capuchina, among other specialties, some of which are still served today.

Cesar obviously knew how to treat Columbia's emplyees over the years. Long time pianist, Henry Tudela performed at Columbia for more than half a century.

George Quito, general manager, worked at Columbia for more than thirty years. At first out of loyalty to Cesar Gonzmart. George Guito is not embarassed to confess that as a 17-year old, he was in-and-out of trouble with the law. "Mr. Gonzmart took me under his wing and gave me a job, showed his trust in me, and turned my life around. I'd hate to think where I'd be if it hadn't been for him."

Ferdie Pacheco, the artist, author, and television commentator and former fight doctor for Muhammad Ali. Pacheco once waited tables for Cesar at the Columbia when he was a lad of fourteen. He always maintained his friendship with the Cesar an the family. Pacheco has happily co-authored a cookbook with Adela Gonzmart. He and his wife traveled to-an-from Miami until the book was completed. The 178 recipe cookbook is titled, "The Columbia Restaurant Spanish Cookbook."

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Columbia Restaurant Website

Columbia Restaurant
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Ybor City Chamber of Commerce
 
Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau