On the left, beneath the hunter-green awning laced with dangling gold stars, whose shadows shift on the ground whenever the wind catches them, is the main entrance to the train — your destination.
The train, as you might suspect, sits on top of real train tracks. The dining area is so squeaky clean you could eat a hamburger off the navy carpet without thinking twice.
Standing behind the bar is the owner and chef, Bob Horne. It’s Monday afternoon and he’s long since wrapped up breakfast and lunch and is relaxing in his usual attire — a blue button-down with the sleeves rolled up, which he says complements his blue eyes, and black pants. A half-consumed bottle of Beck’s rests next to him on the counter, signaling that the day’s work is officially done.
If you lived in Sarasota five years ago, then you’ve definitely heard of Horne. If you ever visited Bob’s Place in the Rosemary District, you’d remember him and his extensive collection of circus photographs and posters plastered on the diner’s walls. Whether you tasted it or just heard about it, you’d recall his cream of skunk soup and beaver tails. (Don’t worry: Neither dish is made with real skunk or beaver.)
The red, white and blue “bar car” of Bob’s Train was originally a New York day coach that housed back-to-back seats for its trips from New York to Boston. When Amtrak took over the rails and began buying new rolling stock, it was sent to the Vandenberg Airport, in Tampa, and it used to take work crews out to missile launch sites. Horne purchased the bar car and two other cars — the utility car and a main dining car — from the Ringling Bros. Circus in 2005. At the time, the cars were compartmentalized with tiny rooms, similar to military barracks, in which families lived. They were last used during the circus’ 2004 blues show.
“When I was teaching at Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences, the thought was always, ‘If I had a chance to play with trains ... ’ This (train) is 345 feet long right now and more than 250 tons — it’s a pretty good-sized toy.”
The utility and main dining cars contain historical photo galleries of famous people, past and present, who have come to Sarasota. They’ve all been involved in music, sports or the circus, but mostly the circus.
There’s a photo of Pope John Paul II receiving his circus top hat and diploma as a circus ringmaster from The Rev. Jerry Hogan. There’s a drawing of John Ringling as a clown at age 18, as well as a photograph of the inaugural performance of the Ringling Circus Oct. 28, 1928, at Central Avenue and 11th Street. Along one of the walls, Marilyn Monroe can be seen riding an elephant painted pink just for her.
“This is no longer my train,” Horne says, his eyes scanning the walls. “This is a museum, and it’s ending up being owned by the people of Sarasota. I get to play the ham, which is not difficult for me, because I’m a well-cured ham.”
Getting the train up and running has taken longer than Horne thought would be necessary. However, the original concept — a dinner train that runs from Sarasota to Tampa and to Gainesville, Raymond James Stadium and Jacksonville for football games, which he’s gotten approval for through Amtrak — excites him.
“The most fun will be costume-party nights when we have 400 guests and staff dressed to the nines in period costume from the 1880s and 1920s,” Horne says. “The trolleys will meet the train and take everyone to the art galleries in downtown Tampa for a private champagne reception.”
In addition to Bob’s train, Horne’s most prized piece of history is JOMAR — John and Mable Ringling’s private train car that he’s restoring.
Whenever Horne gives tours of the train, he likes to tell the stories of the Ringling’s travels aboard JOMAR.
“I moved JOMAR down the street at 4 a.m. in 2004,” Horne said. “It weighed 80 tons. I had a police escort in the front and back, and circus fans watching as we set it back on the tracks.”
When Horne acquired the train, it was rusted through, and the roof was in deplorable shape. Homeless people had broken into it and been living in it and under it, and anything of value had been stolen for scrap or burned.
Horne plans to return it to its original 1917 state and having the capability of hosting private parties and dinners. As Horne’s way of giving back to the community, JOMAR will become an auction item for organizations to raise money by offering nights on the car for up to three couples.
If you go
Bob’s Train is open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and for brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. It’s located at 2211 Fruitville Road, in Sarasota.
Contact Loren Mayo at email@example.com.