When Huntsville residents noticed in early spring that the Bearkat-orange cinderblock building at 1421 Sam Houston Avenue was undergoing a transformation, it ignited a growing buzz. About five months later, the building had morphed into a second, larger version of City Hall Café and Pie Bar, a small café that had earned a large following several miles out of town.
The remarkable story began when a tiny restaurant in a cinderblock building on FM 1791 caught Jean Ann Robinson’s eye.
The business was for sale, and the time was right—after working for years as a full-time systems analyst and part-time caterer, Jean Ann had decided to go into the restaurant business. City Hall Café and Pie Bar, located in a 24-by-30-foot building in the small community of West Sandy, welcomed its first customers in 2001.
“It was a huge change from being a systems analyst all those years; I just thought I worked hard,” Jean Ann says. Business picked up so fast, her husband Gary Robinson soon quit his job to help run the café. Their hard work paid off—before long, area residents discovered the small establishment and became regular customers. They raved about City Hall Café’s hamburgers, chicken fried steaks, and other homemade specialties, plus made-from-scratch pies and cobblers. “Our customers are our biggest supporters,” Jean Ann says.
Gary chuckles when he tells about the growing reputation of City Hall Café’s hamburgers. While waiting in line to order at a burger restaurant in Ohio, one of City Hall Café’s regular customers overheard people behind him talking about good places to eat. “He couldn’t believe it,” Gary says. “One of them said, ‘If you ever get down to Texas, there’s a place called City Hall Café that has great burgers.’”
In 2003, City Hall Café moved to a larger location in West Sandy, which Jean Ann and Gary built themselves, decorating it with repurposed and salvaged materials. The business thrived, and about two years ago, the Robinsons began to look for a larger venue in Huntsville. When they found the orange cinderblock building and began renovations, local residents noticed; during the summer, businesses and churches began making reservations with the café before it even opened.
A Building with a Past
Gary, who has lived in the Huntsville area his entire life, reports that City Hall Café’s downtown building had many previous lives. From what he understands, it was originally a Greyhound bus station. Later, the building was used for many purposes, including automobile dealerships, restaurants, an arcade, and most recently, an art gallery and frame shop.
At one point, the building was carved into two separate businesses, but City Hall Café inhabits the entire, 10,000-square foot building. “We weren’t looking for 10,000 square feet,” Jean Ann says, “but this turned out to be an incredible opportunity.” Whereas the location on FM 1791 seats just 65 people, one dining room of the Sam Houston Avenue seats 125. A separate dining room, which the Robinsons plan to open in the winter, will seat another 100 and will feature a full pie bar.
One of the best things about having so much space is that there was plenty of room for Jean Ann and Gary to create a cavernous kitchen. There, the café’s legendary pies and cobblers are made, using Jean Ann’s original recipes. The oversized kitchen also comes in handy when preparing food for catering jobs. Gary estimates the kitchen is three or four times the size of the one in the café’s West Sandy location.
Like its West Sandy counterpart, the new location of City Hall Café features decorations made from salvaged materials. “I was born out of my time, I guess,” Jean Ann says. “I love the look.” She and Gary created the café’s interior with rusty, corrugated metal, old logs and salvaged lumber, some stamped with the year 1837. Retired roadway signs hang from the walls and ceilings; Jean Ann and Gary also found decorative uses for tailgates from old pickup trucks their son once drove, as well as dozens of expired automobile license plates. (New plates will probably be added, as the Robinsons appreciate the donation of their customers’ expired license plates.) Many decorations at the café were garage sale or flea market finds. “You never know what you will find,” Jean Ann says.
While the décor provides a unique, comfortable atmosphere, the food at City Hall Café speaks for itself. The most popular items on the menu, Gary says, are chicken fried steak, fried catfish rolled in seasoned cornmeal, and hamburgers. “And,” Jean Ann adds, “we have this amazing club sandwich.” Nothing served at the café, she says, is pre-breaded or frozen. The new location uses all the same recipes that were so popular at the West Sandy location. “We wanted very much not to change anything we were doing when we came into town,” Jean Ann says. Like the West Sandy café, the in-town location has daily lunch specials—such as stuffed bell peppers—that can be served quickly.
And then there are the desserts. Jean Ann, who once did all the café’s baking herself, now has help with the baking of a variety of pies—including pecan, buttermilk, vinegar pecan, chocolate cream, and coconut cream—as well as peach, apple, and blackberry cobblers. Pies and cobblers are available whole or by the slice (or serving).
“Where old friends go
and new friends meet”
Customers have always seemed to appreciate the Robinsons’ hands-on approach, a tradition that has not changed at the larger venue. “Our words to live by are ‘where old friends go and new friends meet,’” Jean Ann says. “We are both here all the time, and we have an amazing group of people who work with us. We are proud to say there is over four hundred years of combined experience in the restaurant business on our team.” Jean Ann admits that the restaurant business takes time away from their family, but the couple and their “Brady Bunch” —Gary’s two sons and one daughter, and Jean Ann’s two daughters and one son—make it a point to take at least one family vacation a year, usually to Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels. She says the group, which now includes spouses, grandchildren, and “significant others,” gets larger every year.
The growth and success of City Hall Café, Jean Ann says, is “beyond our wildest dreams.” In addition to a flock of regulars from the local area, some customers drive from distant parts of the region to eat at City Hall Café. One large group makes a special trip from Livingston every week. Serving these customers is a responsibility that the Robinsons take seriously.
“This is not only our job, it’s fun. It’s our passion! We are honored every time a guest chooses to dine with us, and we are excited to share the incredible atmosphere we have created,” Jean Ann says. “We believe in great food, great service, and great company.”