By Ginna Parsons
STARKVILLE – Ty Thames has always known he wanted to own a fine dining restaurant.
He began working in the food service industry when he was 15. At the University of Southern Mississippi, he double-majored in hospitality management and psychology, while working as a “kitchen dog” at O’Charley’s in Hattiesburg.
But the Clinton native thought in order to be the best, he needed to go to culinary school. So off he went to the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, where he graduated first in his class.
After that, he moved to Parma, Italy, for a year to do an apprenticeship, and then to Washington, D.C., where he worked in fine dining restaurants for four years.
And then he got a phone call that would change his life.
“Brian Kelley, my dorm mate from USM, called me out of the blue when I was in D.C.,” said Thames, 37. “We really hadn’t kept in touch much and I don’t even know how he found my number. But he knew I always dreamed of owning a restaurant. He said there’s this really cool place in Starkville that just closed down and the space is vacant.”
Thames’ father had attended Mississippi State in Starkville and his mother went to Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, so he was familiar with the area.
“I put in two weeks’ notice, sold everything I could sell and drove down here without ever seeing the spot,” Thames said. “I just decided to give it a shot and go with the universe.”
With Kelley as a silent partner, Thames opened BIN 612, an upscale pizzeria, in the Cotton District in 2005.
“Everything there is made from scratch – dough, sauces,” he said. “I worked in that kitchen for three years. It was small at the time, with only two little seating areas. There were maybe 20 seats inside and an outside patio that sat 50. We did an expansion in 2011 and now there are 250 seats inside and out.”
In 2007, Thames turned a fledgling coffee shop across the street from BIN into Rock Bottom – a bar that serves small plates, like hotdogs, quesadillas and nachos.
A year later, Thames and Kelley were given the opportunity to start a restaurant in the downstairs part of a two-story building in downtown Starkville that housed the Abby.
They opened Restaurant Tyler and six months later, when Whiskey Blues closed upstairs, they opened Zorba’s Greek Tavern in its place.
“This is what I always wanted in a restaurant,” Thames said. “I like that the upstairs and downstairs share a kitchen.”
Blue plates to Benedicts
Tyler is the farm-to-table restaurant of Thames’ dreams.
“In culinary school, they really beat that into you, but it’s the natural process of things,” he said. “In the 1940s, we got away from the small-time farmer that does a little bit of everything, but what makes food so special is that it is regional. It makes you really care about the product. It helps your community be more sustainable.”
Restaurant Tyler’s lunch and dinner menu – and its customers – differ widely.
Ninety percent of the lunch trade is blue-plate specials: hamburger steak topped with sautéed mushrooms, onions, Swiss cheese and brown gravy; pan-seared, blackened Delta catfish topped with crawfish sauce; fried chicken, fried pork chops, fried shrimp and chicken meatloaf.
Sides include mac and cheese, turnip greens, butter beans, mashed potatoes, Vardaman sweet potato casserole, purple hull peas, Parmesan cheese grits and green bean casserole. The dinner menu features upscale Southern cuisine: jambalaya pasta, Vardaman sweet potato gnocchi, fried catfish, shrimp and grits, duck burgers, ribeyes, filet mignon and cold-smoked pork chops.
“Everything is locally sourced, which adds to the freshness,” he said. “We use local chickens, local farm eggs, we cure and smoke our own bacon, our duck sausage is made in-house, we use locally grown lettuces and edible flowers in salads.”
The lunch crowd is mostly students; the dinner clientele is largely businessmen, lawyers, politicians and MSU faculty. Most items on the lunch menu can be had for less than $10, but a steak on the dinner menu can run you $38.
“At night, we get out-of-state people and ESPN comes in whenever they’re in town,” he said. “We usually only get students if it’s a date night or a special occasion.”
Sunday brunch has become the restaurant’s busiest shift. Served from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., it offers everything from waffles, pancakes and signature omelets to eggs Benedict, blue plates and sandwiches.
“It’s been voted the best brunch in Mississippi by Mississippi Magazine,” Thames said. “We have items you can’t get anywhere else. We have a French Toast Sandwich that’s a Cheddar cheese frittata sandwiched between a brioche bun and topped with Hollandaise sauce and maple syrup. We have a Crawditty Omelet, which is a Cheddar cheese omelet covered in crawfish étouffée sauce. And we have three different Benedicts.”
On a typical Sunday, Thames said he serves about 300 people at brunch.
“But if it’s a football game weekend or Mother’s Day, we’ll do 550 people,” he said. “It’s a madhouse. We call it organized chaos.”
Speakeasy on the way
Thames’ latest project involves renovating the basement of Restaurant Tyler and turning it into an old-fashioned speakeasy with handmade cocktails and a mixologist.
“He’s really like the chef of the bar,” he said. “You’re making a dish but it’s really a drink. We’ll have the classics – Old-Fashioned, Sazerac, Manhattan, Rusty Nail, Mint Julep. Then we’ll have eight or 10 of our own specialty drinks using fresh ingredients from local sources.”
Thames said beyond that menu, they’ll offer Mississippi-brewed beers only.
“There’ll be no Bud Light down there,” he said, laughing. “We’ll have a large selection of high-end bourbon, scotch, tequila, gin and vodka. And every drink will be served in the glass it was intended for. It’ll be kind of like a movie set. Everything has a purpose. Everything has a reason.”
He hopes to open the bar in the next three to six months.
“There’s not going to be anything like it around here,” Thames said. “It won’t have a name and it will have a secret entrance. People will have to know it’s here to come here.”
When Thames gets the speakeasy complete and running efficiently, he’ll be a happy man. He doesn’t plan on opening any more restaurants and he certainly doesn’t intend to leave Starkville.
“I’ve put my roots down here,” he said, “and my branches don’t go very far.”