My 4-year-old, Theo, is obsessed with trains, which means I, of course, am likewise obsessed with trains. And so, on a raw, ugly day in Sarasota, I find myself climbing the stairs to board Bob's Train.
Bob's sits adjacent to a pothole-laden concrete lot that spreads out next to a strand of train tracks just north of Fruitville Road, east of downtown. The train is actually comprised of four cars: one for eating, a couple for exploring and a fourth that remains in disrepair. Thirteen tables line the walls of the main dining car. Heavy blue velvet drapes block out the windows, which otherwise just offer views of a fence and some weeds. Lanterns hang from the wall above each table, next to salt, pepper and sugar caddies built out of small model trains. Green-string Christmas lights line the curved upper walls on each side, filling the space with twinkling cheer and turning the long car into a warm cocoon protecting us from the raging gray outside.
Most of the tables are taken up—apparently we're not alone in craving some choo-choo food today. Bob's menu hits the standard notes: burgers, hot dogs, tilapia sandwiches, Sunday brunch, etc. Sodas and cold drinks come out in red Solo cups, poured out from a small bar near the back of the car. As we wait for our food, the family and I explore the rest of Bob's environs. The scent of the deep fryer and the sizzle of patties fills the second car, the smell and sound coming from a small kitchen tucked away on the left. That's where you find Bob Horne, the man behind the train, quickly filling orders delivered to him by the eatery's one server.
Outside the kitchen, the hallway is lined with hundreds and hundreds of vintage photos and posters. The third car, where the walls are covered with even more memorabilia, is completely deserted. Theo stretches his legs, vrooming a Lego train he's brought along for the occasion.
You'll notice I'm spending most of my space here describing the Bob's Train atmosphere. That's because, in truth, that's what makes the spot worth visiting—not the food. My cheeseburger ($8.65) is adequate, cooked well done with a ring of provolone on top. The tomato is shockingly red and tasty, but if the highlight of a burger is the tomato, well... your boiler might be busted. Rachel's bacon mushroom cheeseburger ($11.75) comes out cheese-less, but she reports that the sautéed mushrooms are tasty and her beef is nicely crusted. On the side of both our dishes sits a welcome handful of homemade potato chips, but they're inconsistent—some crispy, some soggy. Again, OK. Theo's sauerkraut hot dog ($5.90) tastes good, but it's not a draw. Neither is the service—harried today thanks to an uptick in the number of customers.
So should you visit? Fizzling fireboxes, yes. How many other opportunities will you have in your lifetime to eat inside a train car? Trains remain the world's best, most glamorous way to get around, but for some reason we in America have forgotten all that. I'm glad I've got a 4-year-old to remind me.
Bob's Train is located at 2211 Fruitville Road, Sarasota. It is open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; 5-8 p.m. Saturday; and 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday. For more info, call (941) 321-5643 or visit bobstrain.com.