Sheffield’s dining scene has changed a lot over the last decade. Back then there was no Leopold Square, no West One and key players like BrewKitchen and the Milestone hadn’t even been invented.
But one name stands out from the rest: Thyme Café was founded in 2003 and has been a cornerstone of downtown Broomhill ever since.
It remains an independent, under the same ownership throughout its 12-year history, and still looks pretty much as it did on day one.
And the formula clearly works as well now as it did then – despite appointing new joint head chefs only a few weeks ago, it has just celebrated its second-busiest week ever.
Founders Richard Smith and Adrian Cooling met at catering college and worked together at Smithy’s eponymous Crosspool restaurant. That went on to become Thyme (later Artisan) and the two decided to collaborate on a new, more informal venture.
Thyme Café was intended to be a ‘no-nonsense’ eatery, according to Smith: “Relaxed and a little rough around the edges. A place that delivered robust, hearty dishes that were big on flavour and direct on taste.”
We’re sticking with the Thyme ethos but we’ve made changesSean Allen, Head Chef
The two were very much hands-on for years – and continue to oversee the business – but the mantle of head chef has recently passed to Sean Allen and Dave Batty.
“They’ve progressed their skills at the café over the years and now plan on developing a dynamic kitchen,” says Smith.
“Sean and Dave have become friends rather than just work buddies.
“A deep understanding and a great working relationship delivers an environment of creativity, as well as the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other – which ultimately delivers some lovely, simple, tasty food.”
Sean was a fitness instructor until the age of 21, developing an interest in food and nutrition. Deciding his real interest lay in cooking, he started at Thyme as a commis chef.
Since then he has broadened his experience overseas and at local restaurants including the Peacock at Rowsley and the Grind café, but always comes back to Thyme: “Whenever I go and try somewhere else, it doesn’t match up,” he says.
Dave began training at the age of 13 and later went into the Army as a chef. He went on to run the Upland Goose Hotel in the Falklands for four years before returning to Sheffield to work at Spice Market Café (later Relish) and then at Thyme.
The two work well together – “We fill each other’s gaps” – and they are fired with enthusiasm for their new joint venture.
“We’re sticking with the Thyme Café ethos, but we’ve made a few changes,” says Sean.
The menu is updated more often, with a wider range of vegetarian dishes and a few of their own tweaks to tried-and-tested favourites.
Other changes include a garden make-over, with a flagged terrace offering an al fresco dining area on sunny days.
But inside the place looks much the same, with its shabby chic decor, painted panelling, industrial ducting, polished wooden floor – and no wi-fi. Which means the place is mercifully free of screenophiles.
The walls are lined with blackboard menus and framed prints of Sheffield icons from Jarvis Cocker and Henderson’s Relish to the old Tinsley cooling towers.
Tables can’t be booked, but most diners don’t have long to wait, even when it’s busy.
We’ve called in for lunch and are ushered to a table by manager Carl Grayson, a genial fellow who specialises in old-school service.
The blackboard menu is extensive, with a choice of around two dozen dishes, around half of them changing each week.
There’s also Just In Thyme, available Mon to Fri until 7pm, which offers a daily changing selection from the main menu. It’s great value at two courses for £13 or three for £16 including a drink… and kids eat free.
I start with couscous salad – big, fat grains mingled with roasted baby plum tomatoes, olives, chickpeas, piquillo peppers (sweet and red, with no heat), little nibs of tangy feta cheese and rocket.
Across the table, my companion’s choice seems strangely familiar… I’ve had the Thyme cookbook for years but had forgotten about my favourite red pepper risotto until it cropped up here, in its original home. Wonderful! Now tweaked with tomato and goat’s cheese too.
My main course is a courgette and coriander falafel burger: a soft, sumptuous patty, nicely spiced, with a wicked chilli kick and a topping of goat’s cheese. It comes in a bun with a dish of tzatziki and – because I’m trying to avoid chips – the chefs have substituted a dressed salad of leaves and red onion.
My companion has no such scruples and is happy to testify that his fries are top notch.
They come with a pie that lacks a bottom but has a good shortcrust top and is filled with pieces of pork and root veg. The gravy could be thicker, but has real concentrated depth of flavour.
We’re too full for dessert – these are Smithy-style puddings, not for the faint hearted – so finish our meal with americanos and biscotti.
Two-course lunch is £19 for him while mine, off the Just In Thyme menu, is £13.
* Thyme Café, 490-492 Glossop Road, Sheffield S10 2QA (0114) 267 0735 Thyme Cafe