When most restaurants were serving scampi in a basket, Malcolm Reid and Colin Long decided to break the mould. Passionate about French cuisine, they embarked on a brave move – to bring it to Yorkshire.
Nothing quite like it had been tried before, but the pair hit immediate success and now the Box Tree in Ilkley is celebrating half a century as one of the country’s top restaurants.
The story began in 1962 when Malcolm and Colin spotted one of the oldest buildings in Ilkley up for sale. They saw in it the potential for a fine dining establishment and headed straight for the estate agents.
The Box Tree began life as a tea room, but Malcolm quickly established it as the North's most successful restaurant, gaining two Michelin stars and featuring in all the food guides.
The rest, as they say, is history.
All the stars came, from Shirley Bassey to Charles Aznavour. Johnny Mathis declared it his favourite place to eat and the restaurant’s scrap book has a clipping of Margaret Thatcher who was snapped there by the local paper.
The restaurant still has a menu from the early days and it’s extraordinary. Pride of place is boned out chicken breast in a piquant sauce of mushrooms, tomatoes, coriander and sherry.
To think most establishments back then thought prawn cocktail was haute cuisine.
These days the Box Tree is owned by husband and wife team Simon and Rena Gueller. Rena says taking on such a landmark was daunting at first, but she believes the key to success is maintaining a healthy respect for the Box Tree’s reputation, while at the same time introducing their own identity.
The couple came to Ilkley eight years ago on the back of a large city centre restaurant in Leeds.
“This is a complete contrast and for us I think there was more than a level of maturing into a place like this,” says Rena. “It was the right step at the right time.”
But one that came with plenty of sleepless nights as the couple tried to make their mark; all the time conscious of the footsteps they were following.
“For us it’s all about the people who come here to eat,” says Rena. “This is not a shrine to the chef or to the Box Tree, but a place to feel at ease and enjoy one another’s company over good food.
“Michelin Star restaurants can be seen as stuffy but that’s not us at all. We are approachable people and I want the restaurant to reflect that. Somewhere that is accessible to all.”
The couple could be forgiven for resting on the laurels of the Box Tree’s success, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Leeds born Simon is one of the old school chefs. Classically trained, he believes consistency is key.
“Simon has steadily reinvented himself and his style,” says Rena. “He’s not faddish and keeps to his classical roots, which means our menus don’t change, they evolve.”
While 50 years of peerless history may seem a daunting legacy, Simon is more than a match for his illustrious predecessors.
Take the Roast Sea Scallops, or one of his signature soufflés. And don’t miss those hand made chocolates.
Now, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, Simon and head Chef Dan Birk have created an impossibly romantic dish of chocolate pave with Morello cherries, see right for the recipe.
The Box Tree is also perfect for Valentine’s Day, with the heavily beamed restaurant, richly decorated and furnished with rugs and antiques. Centre stage, a huge inglenook fireplace brims with copper pans and plates, while beside it is a fine Yorkshire settle dated 1725.
The windows are intriguing as well; colourful harlequin panes of glass and racked along them is a set of plates bearing some of the restaurant’s many awards.
“We gained our Michelin star within five months and that was great,” says Rena. “But what really meant the most to us was gaining Malcolm and Colin’s approval.”