And in fact, “hidden” is an apt description. “Everybody has heard about us, but nobody knows where we are,” lamented Robert Horne.
Horne, aka “Bob”, is the owner, creator and driving force behind “Bob’s Train.” The Sarasota attraction is a series of four railroad cars, tucked away off Fruitville Road in a small industrial park along Florida’s “Culture Coast.” We were cautioned that not all GPS systems could find the place. It’s true – ours couldn’t. But we can attest, when we finally arrived it was worth the effort.
During our time here at Florida Fun Travel, we have had the opportunity to eat at a lot of fun and funky places which are backed up with great food. In Sanibel, we found The Island Cow, we have dined at several locations of Ford’s Garage with it’s automotive theme and on the Space Coast discovered Meg O’Malleys purveyors of great Irish fare in a real Irish atmosphere.
Each is good in their own way and each begs for return visits. Bob’s Train goes up a notch. Not only is it a restaurant, it also serves as a museum to the area’s rich circus history. Admittedly, most people go for the food.
The menu was created and is prepared by Horne himself. Selections range from entrees to salads or sandwiches. It is a wide range of fare. There’s the gourmet-sounding “roasted romaine,” that is a compendium of a Tilapia filet, sautéed in dry herbs and spices over roasted romaine. There are capers, artichoke hearts, and Mandarin oranges as well. It’s all served with a Red Raspberry vinaigrette.
But Bob’s also has much simpler fare. The menu boasts a wide range of burgers and sandwiches. You might even want a Kielbasa with onions and peppers. It all seems to get pretty good reviews across social media.
However, it’s the dining experience that sets Bob’s Train apart. The setting does not inspire confidence – and climbing the steep rail car steps might even be a task for some. However, when you open the door to the dining car, it’s a whole new world. Patrons are greeted with an atmosphere of dark wood and carpeting, illuminated by the overhead lights. The double row of tables leads to a small bar. But rest assured – this place is kid friendly. In fact there was a birthday party the day we were there. On either end of the car there are TV screens which play a series of vintage films of the circus. But these are not the polished, well-produced production pieces. For the most part, they are home movies of circus performers behind the scenes.
The second car is where the food is prepared. Bob has a custom-made galley where he puts together orders with amazing ease. At one point, he even offered Saturday breakfasts to circus performers who still live in the area. In their working years, some of the folks actually had stayed in the cars now used as the restaurant and museum.
The walls of the second car are peppered with photographs and posters. Some are autographed. All show different performers from different shows that criss-crossed the United States entertaining millions with animal acts, acrobats and clowns. Speaking of entertainment, Bob himself holds court after the meals are served. A former circus performer himself, he can relate story after story about the different shows and what happened inside and outside the Big Top.
It does not stop there, he also has a rich history of the Doolittle’s Raiders of WWII as well as hands-on experience with the US Space program and his friendship with several astronauts. But if you really want to get him talking, ask about his efforts to relocate and refurbish the former circus cars that make up the train. His latest, and most ambitious, project is the restoration of JoMaR, It is the former private residence of John and Mable Ringling. It is the first car on the train and the only one that is not yet open to the general public.Finding pieces for restoration has been a true treasure hunt. However, for the pieces that cannot be located, he will be quick to tell you he believes he can fabricate the parts he needs.
It is simple to sit and dine while getting a rich history of the circus, the train restoration and Bob’s own life experiences. Sitting and listening might even inspire you to get a Chocolate Spaghetti or Rum on the Rails for dessert.
For hours of operation, directions or to volunteer to help restore the railcars – we suggest you visit the Bob’s Train web site. And to find out more about places to stay, places to dine and points of interest, stop by Florida Fun Travel. We are always interested in your suggestions about places we have not yet discovered.
Photos from Barry Foster