It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Toybox Bistro is a singular kind of place, but those who eat here – especially the repeat-customer rocket scientists – will vouch for it. They frequent this unique little diner for the food and the feel, and they bring their friends.
In many ways, this café was created especially for Huntsville’s high-tech community. Even the ramshackle building itself has a techie pedigree: Wernher von Braun used to have breakfast here when it was a different café. But owner Michelle Timon and business partner Billy Bridgmon have made this place their own – decorating it with a mind-boggling collection of sci-fi memorabilia.
The cool, rare and high-end toys, games and collectibles belonged to Timon’s husband, Steve, who died six years ago. “It seems to fit Huntsville very well,” Timon says. “We’re kind of a nerdy, geeky city.”
What’s in the café is just a tiny part of Steve’s 10,000-piece collection. Of the more than 550 items on display, most are easily recognizable while others are things that a deep collector will appreciate. Timon inherited the mostly sci-fi collection, but she knows this niche well. She’s the founder of Hamacon, a popular anime convention in Huntsville. Now in its eighth year, the event on June 23-25 is expected to draw 4,000 people.
At Toybox Bistro, starships from numerous galaxies and screens big and small hang from the ceiling near the bar. Collectibles, including The Incredible Hulk, Star Trek characters, Japanese toys and a rare Star Wars zombie stormtrooper, sit on shelves. Games and game boards (Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Scrabble spelling out “beer,” “burgers,” “cool” and “delicious”) decorate the ceiling. Tabletops are papered with trading and playing cards: Stars Wars, Garbage Pail Kids, Uno and carefully chosen Cards Against Humanity. The big family table that Timon and Bridgmon made has built-in bins of Legos. Sometimes customers contribute to the décor: A friend painted a space mural on one wall, and someone recently put some googly eyes on one of the unisex toilets.
There’s a lot to take in, and it would take several visits to do so, but, ultimately, it’s the food that keeps people coming back. Servers, some in NASA T-shirts, gladly share their favorites from the menu of eclectic American fare.
The Northside Hero, an authentic Chicago Italian beef sandwich, is a best-seller. The freshly made hamburgers (served on Gambino’s rolls from New Orleans) are popular; try the hot Hades Burger with fried jalapenos. The Huntsvegas Hot Chicken is grilled with fries, cheese and Pablo’s Pickles covered with the bistro’s Hot Damn! Sauce. Entrees include an old-fashioned pot roast, home-style chicken potpie and St. Louis-style pork ribs. Everything’s fresh; in fact, there’s no freezer here.
Even the sides shine.
Placed for a moment on the grill, the loaded potato salad tastes like a melted stuffed potato. The gooey inside, crispy outside, supremely cheesy waffle mac and cheese is a must. These are painstakingly made two-at-a-time in a small waffle iron. “Don’t try this at home,” Timon says. The café goes through 40 pounds of mac and cheese every day.
Speaking of every day, the every-day-is-different approach at Toybox keeps things interesting.
The staff spices up the regular menu with a daily special at lunch and at dinner. These range wildly from shrimp po’ boys to Korean ramen. “It’s all up to our chefs as to what they’d like to cook,” Timon says. “There’s no schedule to it, so there’s always a surprise for the customer each day.”
The eight beer taps behind the bar serve mostly local brews, and there are some 35 other beers as well as wine.
Timon and Bridgmon have been friends since childhood. When she first broached the idea of a restaurant, he said, “Heck, no! You’re not the right kind of crazy for a restaurant.” However, today the two employ a handful of cooks who’ve attended culinary school and are interning at Toybox. “They have a lot of talent,” Timon says, “and we encourage them to show their creativity.”
Toybox Bistro has been open for more than a year, but Timon and Bridgmon still see new faces every day.
“We really thought it would be a nerdy, geeky crowd and the engineers because of the location (close to Redstone Arsenal), but we found we don’t have a real demographic. We have people of all ages – young families with children, older folks. It’s amazing how many different types of people come here and try us out,” Timon says.
“We have a lot of fun here,” she adds, mentioning the night everyone – including customers – made and wore tinfoil hats. “We don’t take ourselves very seriously – we take our food very seriously. We very much understand that the kitsch will make you come out, but the food and the service will make you come back.”
511 Jordan Lane NW
Huntsville, AL 35805
Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to midnight. Closed Sunday.