WHEN Ben Williams decided to return home to York to open a new food business his first plan was to keep it casual.

Nice wines, platters or fine cheeses and delicious meats with olives as big as your knuckle - you get the gist.

But then he managed to recruit not one but two of the area's best chefs to head up the kitchen at The Old Liquor Store, the restaurant he opened last August bang next to the iconic Terry's Clock Tower, off Bishopthorpe Road, and just a short trot away from York racecourse.

Great British Life: Ben Williams of the Old Liquor Store York.Ben Williams of the Old Liquor Store York. (Image: The Old Liquor Store)

Jockeying for glory in the kitchen is Matt Leivers, who helped the acclaimed Star Inn at Harome win back its Michelin star, and Jack Whitely who started at the Harome gastro pub then moved to its York satellite The Star Inn the City. Suddenly, Ben's culinary ambitions widened.

'When I started off it was going to be more like the wine bar I ran in London - more casual with simple food.

'But then I met Matt and knew about his background as head chef at Harome. So the concept grew from there: not be be Michelin star, but to have a nicer pedigree.'

Great British Life: Yorkshire food with an Italian influence at The Old Liquor Store in York.Yorkshire food with an Italian influence at The Old Liquor Store in York.

That pedigree translates into menus for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner filled with quality produce all with a nod to Italy and the flavours of the Mediterranean.

'We say the food is not from Italy - it is from Yorkshire but is Italian influenced,' begins Ben, aged 40 , who cut his hospitality teeth running the Rose and Crown at his home village of Sutton on the Forest straight out of university.

'Our food captures the fresh, seasonal flavours of the Med, but we also wanted to play with that stodgy, dirty side of Italy that brings you meaty and cheesy risottos.'

Open Wednesday to Saturday from breakfast through to dinner, Sundays are reserved for breakfast and roast dinner lunches. Again, with an Italian flavour.


'So we have a proper nice chunk of Yorkshire-reared sirloin - always pink - with cheesy cauliflower, but also cavolo nero and a veal bone gravy. It's an Italian nod to an English classic. And the quality is much higher than at the average pub,' said Ben.

No two days are the same, with menus changing daily. In the evening, a small plates selection is offered alongside antipasti or frutti di mare sharing platters and a choice of stone-baked pizzetta topped with the likes of fontina cheese, wilted spinach, Portobello mushroom, hen's yolk and pecorino romano, or beef cheek bolognaise, fresh chillies, provolone dolce and rocket.

During my visit one busy Saturday night, we gave the small plates menu a good going over, starting with a delicious array of nibbles featuring sweet and sharp balsamic onions and mixed nuts coated in truffle and pecorino. Giant wedges of cotton wool-soft focaccia with a crispy, salty crust were used to soak up the sauces in the plates to come, a highlight of which was the pan fried fillet of sea trout, bathed in a creamy sauce flavoured with leek, mussels and smoked pancetta. The scallops with chorizo and charred corn were winners too and we loved the arancini ball stuffed with slow-cooked beef in a tomato sauce laced with peas.

Great British Life: Homemade focaccia bread at The Old Liquor Store in York.Homemade focaccia bread at The Old Liquor Store in York. (Image: The Old Liquor Store)

The England meets Italy love affair was evident in our pudding: a bread and butter panettone with pistachio gelato and a silky sauce of chocolate orange (of course - this is the old Terry's site after all where the legendary Terry's Chocolate Orange was made for decades).

With a name like The Old Liquor Store, the booze menus are a bit of a treat too.

Lovers of Italian wine will find something to suit all palates and pockets - and there's a decent cocktail menu too with Vermouth and Aperol spritzes sitting next to a classic Bellini as well as a range of martinis. Again, with a wink to its history, there is a Chocolate Orange Martini on offer - a powerful concoction of house vodka, chocolate liqueur, Creme de Cacao and Triple Sec.

Ben is keen to make the most of the building's unique past. Built in the 1920s, it was used as the storage room for the alcohol that went into Terry's confectionery - so literally it is the old liquor store.

Great British Life: Signature Chocolate Orange Martini cocktail at The Old Liquor Store in York.Signature Chocolate Orange Martini cocktail at The Old Liquor Store in York. (Image: The Old Liquor Store)

Grade-II listed, the original tiles from the building are still in place. 'It feels like an old 1920s vintage factory, but it has more of a warmth about it,' he said.

One sad note is that Ben's dad, Bill, passed away in 2022. He was a confectioner, but worked at rival's Rowntree's.

'Dad invented the blue Smartie and worked on the Secret bar,' said Ben. 'He was in new product development and spent his life doing that. So it seems fitting that we are in an old chocolate factory - albeit a rival to the one dad worked for.

'He died from Alzheimer's so never got to see us open up, but I think he would have been happy that we were in this building.'

Great British Life: The 1920s tiled interior of The Old Liquor Store in York.The 1920s tiled interior of The Old Liquor Store in York.

Ben and the team are keen to capitalise on the history of the site and are planning a 1920s/1930s night. Terry's used to have a restaurant in St Helen's Square and Ben said the team were already looking at some of the old Terry's restaurant menus for inspiration.

Wine appreciation nights are also being scheduled - as are special menus and celebrations for race days. The restaurant, which has 60 covers inside, has space for 30 diners on its outdoor terrace.

Ben said: 'York races will be a key market for us. We can offer pre-race brunches and entertainment after the races. We are already speaking to the racecourse about using a golf buggy to shuffle people between us and Knavesmire.'

Sounds like another winning idea - by a few furloughs.


Great British Life: Ben Williams, far left, with his team at The Old Liquor Store in York.Ben Williams, far left, with his team at The Old Liquor Store in York. (Image: The Old Liquor Store)