It’s the measure of a genuine hospitality hero to look back on life’s journey in the context of food, wine and the pleasures of both. In Michael Ibbotson’s case, it might be summed up by....scallops.

Contemplating 25 years at The Durham Ox, a fascinating and very foodie fact he can regales is this; ‘Our most popular starter is the Ox Cheesy Scallops. A dish that I first learnt from the late Dennis Watkins, arguably one of the patriarchs of the gastropub. An unctuous and rich combination of grilled scallops, garlic butter, Gruyère cheese. We had some fun recently and worked out that if we laid out all the cheesy scallops we have sold over the last couple of decades it would be 12 miles…from the Ox to Helmsley, or all the way up (and down) Mount Everest!’

Michael and Sasha Ibbotson have made a huge success of The Durham Ox. Michael and Sasha Ibbotson have made a huge success of The Durham Ox. (Image: The Durham Ox)

Yes, that’s someone who genuinely lives and breathes his subject.

You might say cheesy scallops are in Michael’s blood. He’s a proud Yorkshireman who went to school in Ampleforth and always wanted to open a business in North Yorkshire.

Michael was just 28 when the Ox opened its doors in 1999. Young, keen, and passionate about the industry, his first bar job was working for Andrew Dunn at Oscars in York. From there he went to Hotel School at Westminster, staying for apprenticeships at The Capitol in Knightsbridge, El Vino, Fleet Street moving to Chez Max in Chelsea.

The Ox is full of history - such as these impressive carved panels in the bar. The Ox is full of history - such as these impressive carved panels in the bar. (Image: The Durham Ox)

‘I immediately loved everything about the hospitality business. Its dynamism, fast pace and constantly changing arena, as a young man it was really addictive and exciting,’ he says.

Some 34 years later how does he feel?

‘I’ve been self-employed for 25 years, and that brings its own distinct and unique challenges. Primarily the responsibility and accountability for your business, and all those that rely on you within it. This is not something to be taken lightly. Despite recessions, Covid, and a 2002 fire, we keep developing, expanding and trying new things. I do still get a buzz from seeing new dishes, produce, artisan suppliers and working with my team. I’m sure everyone is getting younger… or is it me that’s getting much older?’

Famous Ox Cheesey Scallops - they've served up 12 miles-worth in the Ox's 25 years. Famous Ox Cheesey Scallops - they've served up 12 miles-worth in the Ox's 25 years. (Image: The Durham Ox)

The Durham Ox is renowned for hearty, well-executed dining; a place arguably a gastropub before the term was invented. There’s the essence of classic French cooking with menu favourites such as oysters, lobster thermidor, Chateaubriand to share, warm onion and thyme tartlet that pull in the crowds – but then the locals’-friendly battered fish buttie, Ox Ploughman's not forgetting the crowd-pleasing ‘Sunday Celebration of Beef Platter’ - a trio of roaster sirloin, prime Yorkshire Chateaubriand and chargrilled ribeye for four to share.

It's a winning combination that caters for everything from a quick lunch to an extravagant celebration. Something endorsed in the Michelin Guide, which notes, ‘It would be hard to envisage owner Michael Ibbotson not being the face of the 17th century Durham Ox and he certainly knows how to run a successful pub. The cooking is hearty and original; the specials are well worth a look and be sure you leave room for dessert.’

Signature ribeye steak, a real crowd-pleaser Signature ribeye steak, a real crowd-pleaser (Image: The Durham Ox)

Which is just as Michael likes it. ‘We are a village inn that serves great food, you can eat, drink, and sleep. We are unashamedly food driven and show off the spectacular produce Yorkshire has to offer. But we also love the relaxed bar and drinking atmosphere that the Ox still has. We never wanted to make the pub into just a restaurant with a bar. Keeping the character and keeping it informal is our way of having both’, he says.

A visit to Australia informed that decision; a wine trip in 2005 reminding Michael how fundamental the ‘fun’ element of dining was.

‘We focused on ‘stripping back’ the experience – and focusing on quality, quality, quality but in a relaxed environment. We did away with linen tablecloths and heavy leather-bound wine lists… immediately putting the focus purely onto the food and drink. The Aussies know how to have fun while delivering a great product in a fun environment’, says Michael. It was to be a winning approach with his wife Sasha

The welcoming sitting area in the Pool Villa is a lovely place to relax.   (Image: The Durham Ox)

The couple met while Sasha was working at The Star Inn at Harome. They married in 2007 and on return from honeymoon, they were awarded AA Pub of the Year, England. It was an unforgettable evening in the presence of industry greats including the late Roux Brothers followed by another prestigious award in early 2008 when Michael won Publican of the Year.

‘So, we started married life with a real buzz’, recalls Michael. ‘Sasha’s great influence clearly. Things haven’t slowed down since then. We keep our heads down and keep trying new things. The Durham Ox is always at the centre of everything we do. We’ve always been a family friendly environment, but having your own family puts a different spin on things – the couple have a young daughter, Mimi, who is well and truly part of the Ox family.

Michael was the co-founder of Provenance Inns; setting it up in 2010 and building a portfolio of five successful village pubs in North Yorkshire and The Westpark Hotel, Harrogate. In 2017 he decided to scale back his involvement to focus back on his family pub, The Durham Ox.

Quality food, atmosphere and accommodation are the key to on-going success and Michael and Sasha have a golden touch – this year the Ox was named in the prestigious Top 50 Gastropubs list, named Pub of the North in the Countryside Alliance ‘Rural Oscars’ and was one of Michelin’s Best Yorkshire Pubs in a selection of eight.

A mighty Yorkshire breakfast awaits guests. A mighty Yorkshire breakfast awaits guests. (Image: The Durham Ox)

Says Michael, ‘We always remind ourselves and our team, that being a good hostelry is not about who has the most expensive china, or the tallest candlesticks, but it’s about being hosted well and above all having some fun. Making sure people are well fed and well-tended is the key. It’s also remembering standards; mow the lawns, keep the place looking good, no dead flowers, dirty windows, just attention to detail.

‘One of my mentors said to me many years ago, ‘’Great food, doesn’t need to be complicated” and we pride ourselves on simple cooking and great ingredients. The Ox has daily blackboards of fish and shellfish from our shores and specialises in dry aged beef sourced locally from Charles Ashbridge of Taste Tradition Butchers.

‘We also have our Comfort Classics like Black Sheep battered fish and chips and a proper prawn cocktail. We have served 25 tons of prawns in as many years!’

The Durham Ox, like so many places, faced the challenges of the pandemic.

‘We’ve always been ready for a challenge, but this was something else’, remembers Michael.

Fillet and ribeye are favourites at The Durham Ox where meat is a star of the show. Fillet and ribeye are favourites at The Durham Ox where meat is a star of the show. (Image: The Durham Ox) ‘Like many the enforced closure with lockdown, it made us rethink the business. We were lucky enough to be blessed with having lots of space and in the countryside.

‘We invested heavily in our al fresco offering. We built heated areas outside and made the absolute best of what we had. ‘The Doghouse’ bar was created, the outdoor seating areas became the main dining room – and everyone was in the spirit of things to have great fun. It was a success, but not something I ever want to repeat. The pressure of the initial months and the physical, mental and financial worry. But we made it through.’

In fact, The Doghouse is still going strong.

'This our ‘pub within a pub’ is a locals’ favourite, open at the weekends with its informal, outdoorsy ‘après ski’ bar feel. Wooden clad, two roaring fires and a hit when showing rugby games, and other sport.

‘It’s a family friendly space that is full of wellies, dogs, children and fun.’ laughs Michael.

Ready for bubbles in the Pool Villa. Ready for bubbles in the Pool Villa. (Image: The Durham Ox)

As for the next 25 years?

‘We always have plans to continue growing the business. You cannot stand still. Attention to detail and standards are paramount especially when times are tough. We have planning for further bedrooms to be built. But for the meantime we will enjoy the sunshine and our 25th year anniversary, which we will mark with a big party!’


Gin thing

The award-winning Cooperking Distillery in Sutton on the Forrest makes Ox House Gin and is one of the many local suppliers on the doorstep. Head distiller and owner Abbie, while still at school, was a pot washer at The Ox.

Stay free

Sunday Supper Club offer runs year-round every Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday and midweek in the Autumn/Winter. Stay for free in ‘Blue and Green’ rooms when you spend over £225 per couple on food and drink. Other offers are available in different rooms.