One of the oft-overlooked riches of the St. Louis region is found in the remnants of old-fashioned small-town downtowns dotting the area from Belleville in the east to Eureka in the west. Sometimes it takes a practiced tunnel vision to block out the less attractive effects of the aging of these old beauties, but if you can, the ability to envision a feel and pace of many decades ago can be a welcome side dish to the fun of exploring a new restaurant.
So it was that, with a bit of the mind flip, I was into the time trip -- or, more in keeping with the restaurant's own pun, a thyme trip -- in the charming town of Ferguson, a couple miles north of UM-St. Louis on Florissant Road. Church Street, just past the railroad overpass, includes both the town government center and a strip of early-20th-century shotgun storefronts that houses the Thyme Table, a community gathering place reminiscent of the small-town diners of 50 years ago.
It was actually closer to just 15 years ago when I first visited the Thyme Table, which at the time was shoehorned into what appeared to be a former dentist's office in the '50s-style low-rise office building roughly across the street from the current location. Even back then, the style was similar -- a soup-and-quiche kind of place, light lunches and chat, with the requisite French dip and other sandwiches for those who required a bit more sustenance in the middle of their day.
The current spot is bright and airy, with lots of natural light from the big plate-glass display windows in front and busy Victorian wallpaper whose patterns are echoed by the white pressed-tin ceiling. Just about noon the noise level bouncing off such a nonacoustic environment gets a tad loud, especially given that it's not uncommon for every table to fill up, drawing from an interesting mix of Ferguson city employees, the local business community and a large gathering of older folks who look like they may have been coming here for years and years.
Neon-markered display boards advertise the daily special, usually a soup-and- sandwich or soup-and-quiche combo, and the portions are hearty. The roast beef in the French dip was moist even before dipping, despite leaning toward the well-done side, and the mushroom quiche held together tightly but still had a light, almost-soufflé-like texture and plenty of mushroom flavor. Two soups are made fresh daily, and the rich cheese soup was silky smooth, with concentrated cheddar flavor.
If you have time for a nap after lunch, don't miss the fabulous bread pudding. Rather than the more common multiple-lump approach, the texture here is more consistent throughout, almost like a combination of a cake and a custard, sweetened but not overwhelmed by a delicate caramel.
Although primarily a lunch spot, the Thyme Table remains open for dinner on Friday nights, and although it's only open during breakfast hours on Sunday, a full breakfast menu is offered during lunch hours.
If you're not from the immediate area, be sure to nose around the side streets before or after your meal and explore the extensive stock of 100-year-old housing. In an ideal world, all of the little fiefdoms that came together to make up St. Louis would row in the same direction for a unified shot at a better future. Meanwhile, however, the silver lining of regional balkanization is the charming small town that's probably right in your own backyard.
THYME TABLE, 18 Church St. (Ferguson), 521-0440. Hours: 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Fri. Lunch entrees: $4.50-$6.15.