There is a reason why Thyme Restaurant is credited as one of the reasons to visit Athlone, County Westmeath. A visit to the Michelin-awarded restaurant is high on the list of ‘Top 10 Must-Dos’ in Athlone, along with a trip down the Shannon, Athlone Castle, Sean’s Bar and even the Viking Trail. Thyme Restaurant has long been a shining light in the Midlands food scene.
The award-winning restaurant is attracting visitors from far and wide with a menu which puts locally sourced food from the Midlands at the very heart of everything it does. Owner and Head Chef, John Coffey has quietly led his loyal staff and customers for 16 years and it is a testament to him that many of his original staff and suppliers are still by his side.
Ethos of Thyme Restaurant
If the herb thyme ‘stands for courage and strength’, John Coffey’s belief in using local producers has been at the heart of the ethos at Thyme since opening in 2007, and it continues to be the most important element for Coffey and his team. His passion for supporting locals has him on the road every week, meeting one particular supplier ‘halfway’, ‘It’s hard to do a fully local menu, so many people think it’s about the cost, but it’s not, it’s about the time and dedication that’s needed to truly serve a local menu’ says Coffey. ‘When you eat in a restaurant, the food should reflect the location, for me, it’s so important that our menu reflects the Midlands.’ In relation to his supplier, ‘This farm produces some of the best meat in the country, and appears on so many menus in Dublin, and yet I’m his only customer in the area.’
It’s clearly an area that John Coffey is passionate about, with immense pride in the quality of produce coming from the region, and a drive to do his best to support and showcase it.
John Coffey, Owner and Head Chef at Thyme Restaurant
Coffey began his career working in the famous ‘Harry’s of Kinnegad’ at the age of 15, and this experience drove him into a career in food. From studying Hotel and Catering Management in Athlone, he was always pulled back to the kitchen. ‘Back in those days what really stood out for me in Harry’s was that the local ethos was so strong. It was the local farmers in the area who supplied so much of the food, but what I loved was that they also ate there, did their business there and their children got jobs there. It was such a central part of life in the town, and somewhere along the way, the food industry lost that.’
Farmer’s Markets in the Midlands
He is so encouraged by the growth of Farmer’s Markets right across the region and is one of the founding members of the new Athlone Food Circle. ‘The likes of the Tullamore Food Fayre really show what can be done, the quality of the produce is really driving the food scene in the area with Pigs on the Green, Mossfield Cheese and Lough Boora Organic Farm, they’re all suppliers of mine in the restaurant, and they’re the ones that deserve the real praise, the food scene in the Midlands isn’t about the restaurants, it’s about the producers, they’re the ones that drive it, and they’re the ones that really deserve the support.’.
The Food at Thyme Restaurant
Thyme has grown in reputation and profile since opening in 2007, ‘When we opened first, we knew we couldn’t do exactly the food we wanted to straight away, our customers at that time still wanted food they were familiar with, so we did the food people wanted, and gradually began to add our own fine dining spin. It didn’t always work, and those times were tough. We were trying to be all things to all people, trying to please everyone, and it was difficult, so while the town was booming at first, once the crash hit, we had every excuse to close the doors. The best decision we made at that time was to focus. We stopped doing lunch and concentrated on our dinner service. That focus allowed us to bring a vision and clarity to our food, and it was at that point we really began to see what Thyme could become.’
The restaurant quickly came to the attention of the influential Michelin Guide, being awarded a Bib Gourmand, and more critical acclaim followed. While Coffey is clearly proud of the success Thyme has enjoyed, the sharp focus of a professional chef is clear to see. ‘While the Michelin Guide has been great for our profile, we don’t pat ourselves on the back, we get on with the work, and we keep going to make sure we maintain it. It does drive you on, there’s a pressure that comes with it, people are now visiting Athlone and Thyme as a destination, and we have to make sure we’re living up to their expectations. For us, it’s all about improving, being driven to do more.’ Coffey is coy on the drive for the star, ‘Obviously, for any chef, it’s the dream, but from a business perspective, we have to look at our customers and what works best for them. There’s something about a good 3-course meal, and a good bottle of wine, that’s the kind of food I think people remember, and that’s what keeps them coming back to us.’
It’s that kind of thinking which has made Thyme such a staple of the Midlands food scene, with 16 years of trading almost unheard of in the industry.
Tourism in the Midlands
On the evening before our visit, Thyme hosted a group of international tourism operators in the region to experience ‘Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands’, with Athlone serving as an ideal base from which to explore the Shannon region. One thing is sure, visitors to the Midlands region would do well to visit Thyme to really get a flavour of the best food and welcome the region has to offer.