Bob’s Train, the Greatest Chow on Earth
WORDS BY ABBY WEINGARTEN
PHOTOS BY JENNY ACHESON
Bob Horne is the ringmaster of the culinary railcar.
He is the man behind Bob’s Train—a restaurant inside an antique transport that once belonged to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Guests at the tucked-away eatery find Horne whipping up bacon-wrapped lamb chops with sweet potatoes before relaying tales of Sarasota’s big top history.
Horne, who locals know as the former owner of Bob’s Place in the Rosemary District, is the train’s chef, host, and charmer.
“Today I had a ladies’ group for lunch in the back of one of the railroad cars and I told them the history of the Ringlings. When the doors open, I’m there. I’m in the kitchen and I’m also a host,” Horne says. “People have fun. There’s good food and lots of history.”
The past president of Showfolks of Sarasota (a nonprofit club for those in the local circus industry), Horne learned about the Ringling legacy through his wife’s late grandfather and circus treasurer/board chairman, Rudy Bundy. In 2007, Horne converted a 1960 Pullman that once carried performers cross-country into a dining room and bar, as well as a veritable circus museum with hundreds of photos, posters, and memorabilia.
He knows the anecdote behind each one. Horne also salvaged a 1917 Pullman called the Jomar that, in its heyday, was John and Mable Ringling’s home on the road and the apex of luxury transportation. Volunteers labor from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday to restore this car to its original opulence, in hopes that it will one day be a traveling venue for soirees and shows.
“We want the train to be done in 2017, by the time it’s 100 years old. It will look exactly as it did in 1917 with all the pastel colors,” Horne says. “We rebuilt the roof. I found the stained glass windows in an old horse barn—two of the originals. We’ll be able to restore all stained glass windows to their 1917 condition.”
In 2004, Horne paid to have the rusted, abandoned car (then owned by a law firm) relocated from behind a cement plant north of downtown to an old lumberyard at Third Street and School Avenue. Horne moved 1947 and 1957 Pullmans to the same area.
Together, Horne’s railcar collection is called the Sarasota Suncoast Railroad, and the red, white, and blue Pullman is the main car. The site is located at 2211 Fruitville Rd.—a fairly hidden address that can be found by taking the Fruitville exit from Interstate 75 west toward downtown Sarasota, and then making several detours, twists, and turns.
Clockwise: Aurelia Wallenda-Zoppe enjoying the chocolate spaghetti, a signature dish;
Chuck Sidlow serving up some comedy; A local volunteer working on restoring the train;
One of the many vintage circus posters hanging in Bob’s Train.
“‘Oh my’ is said a lot here when people see the car and all the photos on the wall and taste the food,” Horne says. “The problem is, nobody knows where it’s at. Once they find it, they come back and bring their friends. It’s definitely an experience.”
Sunday brunch features omelets with 30- plus fillings. Lunches are rife with specialties like the M.O.O.S.E. Burger with homemade horseradish sauce and mozzarella cheese, and the marinated artichokes and mandarin oranges with melted Danish bleu cheese. There are also sauerkraut- and-cheese dogs, ham reuben sandwiches, roasted romaine salads, and pesto burgers.
“I try to use food from local farmers and work with local businesses everywhere I can,” Horne says. “Instead of regular tomatoes, I prefer vine-ripened tomatoes. The idea is to make food with the best things that are available.”
Horne recently collaborated with Drum Circle Distilling to use the company’s Sarasota- based Siesta Key Gold Rum in one of his desserts. He saturated a carrot cake with the spiced rum and paired it with hot, spiced peaches and vanilla ice cream. Another decadent idea of Horne’s was to host eight-course, old-fashioned, private railcar dinners.
“This is a chance for people to go back and have something like it happened many years ago,” Horne says. “I’ve even done a private dinner for two where a guitarist played live music for a couple. There was champagne and red roses, and the night ended with an engagement.”
Horne mixes the romance of circus lore with lip-smacking homemade cuisine. Who needs a tent when you have a train?
Bob’s Train hours are 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday (brunch), 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday (lunch), and 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (dinner). Bob’s Train: 2211 Fruitville Rd, Sarasota; 941- 321-5643; facebook.com/sarasota.suncoast.railroad; bobstrain.blogspot.com.