The food scene in Tampa and St. Petersburg is better than it’s ever been. New spots, new menus and new cultural experiences all vie for our time and attention. As good as those new places are, sometimes it pays to look at the handful of iconic and historic restaurants that have stood the test of time.
It may go without saying that Tampa and St. Petersburg’s history and development were different from each other, and those differences are reflected in the restaurants that have survived 50, 75, 100 (or more!) years.
When looking at those important and historic places, three from each side of the bay emerge as among the most important and historically significant. In Tampa, that means The Columbia, Bern’s and Malio’s, while in St. Petersburg, those hungry for a good meal with a side of history can check out The Chattaway, Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish and El Cap. Though their menus and specialties vary, they all share one thing in common—they’re all part of our region’s cultural legacy.
The Columbia Restaurant (featured photo above)
What started as a rough and tumble saloon during the early—and wild—years of Ybor City, The Columbia Restaurant is now one of the most storied and important businesses in Tampa’s history.
Founded in 1903 and alternately known as the Columbia Saloon and Columbia Café, the business was purchased from C. M. Balbontin and the Florida Brewing Company by then-manager Casimiro Hernandez in 1911, who had worked at the café/saloon since it opened. Though he was once a contributor to it, Hernandez worked to shed Columbia’s image as a seedy saloon and began to add more food service to the alcohol-heavy offerings. Prohibition inadvertently helped to change The Columbia’s status as a bar, and by the 1930s, the restaurant was taking on the familiar shape (and size) of today.
The original 1903 bar, which was on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 22nd Street, sat next to a restaurant called La Fonda, which was added to the Columbia footprint in 1920. Major additions in the 1930s included The Don Quixote Dining Room and The Red Room (1935), and the Kings Room, El Patio Dining Room, El Patio Balcony and the Sancho Panza Dining Room—all in 1937. El Siboney Dining Room opened on New Year’s Eve 1959, and at the turn of the 21st century, the Andalucia Dining Room, La Familia Dining Room, and the Don Quixote Mezzanine were completed.
The restaurant now covers an entire city block and can seat up to 1,700 diners at a time. The Columbia, along with a whole host of other restaurants, is operated by the descendants of Casimiro Hernandez, including fourth-generation family members Casey and Richard Gonzmart and fifth-generation family members Andrea Gonzmart Williams and Casey Gonzmart, Jr.
2117 E. Seventh Ave.,Tampa | columbiarestaurant.com
Malio’s Prime Steakhouse
Another Tampa immigrant family has major ties to the city’s restaurant history. While the last name may be less familiar, diners in the city certainly recognize two of the first names—Carmine and Malio. Carmine Iavarone, Sr. arrived in Tampa from Italy by way of New York in 1936. He opened a grocery and meat market in Tampa Heights soon after his arrival, and shortly after that, he began adding prepared foods to his offerings. Based on recipes from his Italian family, Carmine’s restaurant grew to become well known in the city.
The Iavarone family maintained the restaurant following Carmine’s sudden death in 1956, with his widow Frances and their three sons, Carmine, Jr., Malio, and Eugene, plus their daughter Theresa, sharing the workload. The junior Carmine eventually took over the operation of the restaurant, which allowed his brother Malio to start on his own path. In 1969, Malio and his wife, Shirley, sold their house and most of their other belongings to purchase the Tropics Steak House on South Dale Mabry. Renaming it Malio’s, the restaurant saw nearly instant success.
With their partners and lifelong friends Dennis and Ray Sanchez, Malio Iavarone created an iconic restaurant and pioneered the private bar concept. Carmine, Jr. eventually sold the original restaurant and joined his brother in operating and expanding Malio’s. The third Iavarone brother, Gene, went on to open the now famous Carmine’s Restaurant on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, which is now operated by Gene’s son, Carmine.
In 2005, Malio’s moved from their longtime location on Dale Mabry and Azeele to downtown Tampa, where they still offer excellent food and service on the ground floor of the Rivergate Tower, aka the Beer Can Building, on Ashley Drive.
400 N. Ashley Drive, Tampa | maliosprime.com
Bern’s Steak House
Bern’s Steak House is another Tampa icon that got its start as something a bit different. In 1953, original owners Bernard and Gertrude Laxer—better known as Bern and Gert—purchased a lunch counter and juice stand on Cass Street called The Gator Juice Bar and renamed it Bern and Gert’s Little Midway. They continued the shop’s lunch service and then added breakfast to reach more—and earlier—customers.
The Little Midway was not just a name but an apt description—their space was quite small and in the middle of a busy storefront. Seeking more space, in 1956 Bern and Gert purchased the Beer Haven bar at 1208 South Howard Ave. Though originally intending to maintain the bar business, fortune stepped in and coaxed the couple to create something different.
According to the official Bern’s history, the couple bought the business but not the building, and the landlord had been looking for a reason to close the bar. Under the threat of not renewing their lease, the Laxers agreed to go back into the restaurant business. Always intending to be equal partners, they wanted to include both of their names in the new endeavor. “However, in order to save money, they salvaged letters from the existing Beer Haven sign and bought an ‘S’ [and an apostrophe] to create ‘Bern’s.’ They eventually added ‘Steak House’ because the phone company wouldn’t allow single name listings.”
Much like The Columbia, Bern’s grew from a single dining room to multiple dining rooms and adjacent spaces. In addition to the eight dining rooms that can seat 350 guests, Bern’s is known for the famous Harry Waugh Dessert Room, which opened in 1985. Red wine casks were used to “create 48 private rooms where guests can enjoy nearly 45 different desserts. Bern’s owns a well-deserved national and international reputation for outstanding steaks and an unsurpassed selection of wines and is under the direction of Bern and Gert’s son, David.
1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa | bernssteakhouse.com
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
Ted Peters knew two things: how to smoke fresh-caught mullet and other local fish and how to market that product. The results are the same over 70 years later as Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish on Pasadena Avenue attests on a daily basis.
Peters started the business after World War II, joining his stepbrother, nicknamed Red Hot, who came down to St. Petersburg from Upstate New York. They worked together at the Fisherman’s Co-Op in Madeira Beach, where Peters observed and learned the fish smoking process. He perfected that process, but he also noted how it was done out of sight of the public. The lack of a visual—and aromatic—way to advertise the smoked fish hampered sales and Peters took note.
Soon after, he and his wife purchased the old Blue Anchor Inn on Blind Pass Road in St. Petersburg Beach. He found an old smoker and cleaned it up and installed it out front of this restaurant and began to smoke all of his fish right there on the street. In 1949, the Peters sold the Blue Anchor and purchased property on Pasadena Avenue and opened Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish.
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish has been a family affair from the start. The restaurant’s history relates that Ted’s half-brother, Elry Lathrop, was a partner in the day-to-day operations, Elry’s mother Tilla was “a force to be reckoned with” and was the creator of the restaurant’s German potato salad, and Ted’s wife Ellen invented the recipe for their famous smoked fish spread. Today, second, third and fourth generations of the Peters and Lathrop families are still running the restaurant.
1350 Pasadena Ave. S, St. Petersburg | tedpetersfish.com
What started life in 1922 as the Four Corners Grocery on Fourth St. South in St. Petersburg, became, by the early 1950s, a legendary hamburger stand known as The Chattaway. The transition from grocery to restaurant took place in the early 1930s, around the time that Prohibition was repealed. The business was purchased in 1951 by Helen Lund, who continued the tradition of great burgers and cold drinks. That tradition continues to this day, but with a twist.
Helen’s son Everett and his wife Jill joined Helen in operating the Chattaway. Following Helen’s death, Everett threw his life into the restaurant, though at the detriment to his marriage. Despite their divorce, Everett and Jill still operated The Chattaway together. Jill remarried, and her new husband, Warren Frers, not only worked at the restaurant but was one of Everett’s closest friends.
In 1999, Jill began a project that converted a “dingy game room into an English Tea Room,” a perfect addition given that Jill was born and raised in London. Both Everett and Warren have since passed away, but Jill still owns and operates The Chattaway with her children, and you can still get an outstanding burger along with a spot of tea.
358 22nd Ave. S., St. Petersburg | thechattaway.com
If the menu at El Cap is to be believed, the restaurant is the last of several “Caps”—The Sun Cap, The Hub Cap, and The Night Cap. There were bars and restaurants with these names, but coincidence aside, the real history of El Cap still makes for a good story.
The restaurant’s location, on the northwest corner of 36th Ave. and Fourth St. North, was originally home to Al’s Spaghetti House. After Al’s passing in 1960, it is likely that the restaurant was converted to what we know as El Cap, complete with juice, cheeseburgers and cold beer. Three years later, Steve and Rose Bonfili bought the restaurant and it remained in the family’s hands, passing down to their son Frank and his wife Mary Jean.
Mary Jean persevered after Frank’s passing in 1997, expanding the restaurant by adding additional dining rooms and a second kitchen. Though a bit bigger, El Cap did not lose its charm, and the “World Champ” burgers were as tasty as ever. Mary Jean died on May 28, 2019, but longtime employee Cindy Nally and operating partner Tara Mattiacci continued to operate the landmark restaurant. In January 2023, Nally retained her 50-percent stake in the restaurant while Mattiacci retired. They found willing partners in St. Pete restaurant group Seed & Feed Hospitality and they intend to keep El Cap the same as it has been for 60 years.
3500 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg | ElCapStPete
Rodney Kite-Powell is a Tampa-born author, the official historian of Hillsborough County and the director of the Touchton Map Library at the Tampa Bay History Center, where he has worked since 1995.