Speak candidly with any business owner in Ellicottville, and you’ll hear a common theme. Running a success story in a resort town requires finding the delicate balance between staying true to your mission statement and keeping pace with the always-shifting demands of the consumer. Some businesses in Ellicottville never achieved this balance - that’s why they’re not in business anymore. Others, like The Silver Fox, have done what is needed to not only keep the lights on, but remain a rock-solid constant of the Ellicottville scene. There’s a stark difference between owning a restaurant and operating a restaurant. Michael Nickolson, owner of ‘The Fox,’ falls into the latter.
We walked in and immersed ourselves into Ellicottville’s only true steakhouse. Graciously inviting us for dinner and drinks, Mike sat down between courses to expound on the restaurant’s beginnings, navigating a restaurant through good times and bad, and some of the things The Fox offers. My mom and several members of my family got their first paychecks working for Mike and his father Jerry - so it was only fitting that I take her along as my date for the evening.
A Manhattan made with Buffalo Trace bourbon for myself and a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc for mom started our evening. We sat in a nestled corner with low, warm lighting that produced an atmosphere perfect for a quiet night out with friends, family or date. Mike sat down and opened the history book.
“My father cooked and bartended when he got out of the Service, and his uncle owned a restaurant in Buffalo. Some time after we opened, he was interested in me taking it over. At that time, we were the 5th sit-down restaurant in Ellicottville,” he said before rattling off the other originals, like the Ellicottville Inn and The Birdwalk.
As Mike spoke, Angela (our friendly, engaging server) brought out an appetizer dish of fried Dorade, served with remoulade in an Asian style. A white fish that’s sweet to the taste, the dish was enhanced with two sauces that catered to both sweet and spicy.
“In the 70s and 80s, it was steak and potatoes. The whole family would order cuts of meat, and that’s just the way it was. Obviously, things are a little bit different now. As eating habits change, you need to change with it. We still serve a great cut of meat. But now we’re offering more seafood, pork, and white meat. Things that can appeal to every member of a group.”
Nickolson explained that in prior years when a table of 6 came in, you prepared yourself for six cuts of red meat. In 2016, that’s not the case - or if it is, it’s rare. But constantly bringing in new, fresh items - like the Dorade appetizer - keeps the menu fresh.
“The Halibut, for instance, is fresh from Ocean Beauty (out of Seattle),” he said. “We bring the whole fish in and break it down ourselves. That’s part of the process for us, ensuring the dish is prepared front to back exactly the way we want it.”
Unique because of its location and diversity of people that it brings in, Ellicottville is a rare breed that allows for multiple restaurants to coexist without entirely overlapping on a particular customer. Nickolson knows that’s what makes both The Fox and the overall vibe of the town successful. Filling one of those niches is a steakhouse that provides a superior cut, which Angela brought out next.
A fillet dish called Love Me Tender Love Me Blue - served with mashed potatoes for me and surf & turf for mom. I’ve got a big appetite, and I couldn’t finish it all. It was superb. One of the constants you can expect from The Fox is how excellent the main dish is. That constant traces back to the owner/operator idea - Mike is an operator.
“I think one of the biggest reasons we’ve maintained our level of success is that I’m still on the grill. I’ve been doing it since we opened - grilling, directing, being an integral part of the kitchen. I’m involved in everything from the choosing of the wines to the meat to the sauces we use. It’s a very hands-on approach.”
As we finished our entrees, Mike gave us insight on some of the things The Fox does to differentiate itself. A VIP membership allows you to call in for a table (The Fox doesn’t take reservations) up to an hour and a half in advance. That gets you discounts on wine and appetizers as well. But the one ongoing special The Fox does that piqued my interest the most was Date Night.
“Date night started around 5-6 years ago. The concept is quite simple - to get couples to have a date night. A lot of couples, in their older age, start taking the marriage for granted. We want you to come and enjoy the company of each other, and I think that’s done because all of the dishes are shared. Enjoy the ambience, enjoy the food, but most importantly - enjoy the company.”
We finished the evening with sea salt dark chocolate from Watson’s coupled with a dessert wine - Late Harvest Zinfandel from Bella Winery. Mike added that the winter menu fires up on Dec. 21st, and winter Date Night will start after the 1st of the year on Wednesdays. The upstairs is available for private parties or any type of private event. For more information, search The Silver Fox on Google, Facebook or Yelp for posts on what the weekend specials will be.