Where do you go when you want to mash up history, food, coffee, pirates and cigars. Look no further than historic Ybor City in Tampa. Today we took the plunge in 90+ F weather to check out the area that we have heard about for so long. We were not disappointed.
I booked a historic food walking tour. The food wasn’t historic by any means, but the area is a phenomenal lesson in local history. Our guide Ashley (herself a dedicated unapologetic foodie) https://yborcityfoodtours.com is originally from Alabama and transplanted herself in Ybor City 5 years ago without regret. Her passion was contagious and her knowledge impressive.
Our tour starts at the Centro; a large fairly new venue next to the Spanish Social Club (one of many cultural clubs in the area) where we meet in front of the statue of the areas founder http://Vicente Martinez-Ybor. Originally from Spain via Cuba this entrepreneur and visionary settled in what was excellent swamp land and built cigar factories and casitas for his workers http://tampahistorical.org/items/show/117
By offering the American dream, Ybor was able to lure settlers from Germany, Cuba, Italy and even Romanian Jews (who created the beautiful iron works including fencing and entranceway gate). The result was a melting pot of cultures. Each group erected their own social club which provided community services to their members including healthcare, English classes and dance parties (apparently these were legendary in the day and continue to present day). The cigar factories allowed the employees to hire “el lecture” https://whnt.com/community/hispanic-heritage-month/the-historic-role-of-el-lector-in-educating-cigar-factory-workers/ whose role was to stand on a raised platform and read to the employees as they worked. Educating the workers however resulted in some unrest as they realized they were being overworked and underpaid. The concept, however, was ingenious.
The bustling factories enticed an array of related businesses to the area. Cigar box makers and printers of wrappers (largely the Germans), shop keepers and food stores (where the Cuban sandwich was invented), coffee roasters and of course entertainment venues. The Latino influence in the area is the reason that chickens and roosters roam freely (and are protected by law). The Central Park area is a wonderful barnyard of clucking and crowing.
We sampled food and beverage including the famous Cuban sandwich, Latino inspired rice and beans with Pico de Gallo sauce (a nice spicy heat), NY NY pizza (where the Bucs got their post Super Bowl snacks!) and caffe con leche and chicken wings made famous by Guy Fieri in the local brew pub. Two thumbs up all around. No disappointments here.
In one establishment we were seated upstairs in a pseudo loft. What was interesting about it was the moveable bookcase leading to the “spook easy”. Literally a bar with a theme of supernatural. The decor was perfect with its plush high backed red velvet settees and wing chairs. Candelabras with dripping candles. Ouija board and other occult paraphernalia adorned the walls. Recesses filled with skulls and other eerie artifacts. I’m glad we were there during the day! Creepy stuff loses some of its creep in daylight. Nonetheless we felt our neck hairs tingle. They offer special events such as fortune telling and palm reading. Intriguing for sure.
Equally as interesting is the pirate lore. Some say it’s bunk, but the legends are fascinating anyway even if they are someone’s wild imagination. We learned about the infamous pirate Jose Gaspar (nicknamed Gasparilla). https://www.abcactionnews.com/news/local-news/the-legend-of-jose-gaspar-and-the-history-of-gasparilla. The story is captivating and makes the area even more intriguing. In his honour they host a parade and festival that’s the place to be in late January (canceled this year of course).
We wind up at the end for a coffee Latino style in a cafe/cigar making and smoking venue. A tiny place with oversized leather chairs and humongous Corona cigar ashtrays. You can watch the cigar making process as you lounge or take a peek into the humidor for a variety of options.
All in all a really interesting and enjoyable afternoon. Next time we come we will try out the street car trolley that chugs from Ybor City to River Walk in downtown Tampa. And enjoy dinner at the Columbia Restaurant https://www.columbiarestaurant.com. There’s more to see and do … we will be back!