First of three parts
When Hell’s Backbone Grill opened 10 years ago, the tiny Utah town of Boulder seemed like the world’s most unlikely place for an organic, slow-food restaurant. It still does.
The village of 100 or so houses is nestled up against aspen-flanked mountains and spectacular slickrock canyons. You have to thread your way there through some of the most isolated landscapes in the Lower 48 states.
For a growing number of restaurant regulars, Hell’s Backbone Grill is worth every mile of the journey. Fans from Santa Fe, N.M., a 12-hour drive away, make regular treks to sample the chile-crusted filet mignon with poblana crema, the blue-ribbon black-powder buttermilk biscuits and the chocolate-chile cream pots. The grill closes each winter right after its reservations-a-year-in-advance Thanksgiving feast: sage-rubbed turkey, red chile gravy, spinach salad with a warm pear vinaigrette, dried cherry and cranberry compote and pumpkin cheesecake.
While the restaurant’s location remains remote, its reputation has gone national. Gourmet dubbed it one of America’s best farm-to-table restaurants in 2007 and mused “If this is hell, who needs heaven?” Sunset magazine called it “one of the best eateries in the Southwest.”
Looking back over the last decade, co-chef/owner Blake Spalding says nothing has changed, and yet everything has. A nationwide paradigm shift toward locally harvested fare means that the restaurant, though still remote, is no longer quite as exotic.
Spalding was working in Flagstaff, Ariz., as an on-location “extreme caterer” for reality TV shows when she met her future business partner. Jen Castle, the grill’s other chef/owner, was operating the bakery at a downtown Flagstaff coffeehouse. Both women had also worked as cooks on Grand Canyon river trips, a job that required plenty of planning and the ability to cook for dozens of people with a minimum of gear. Both had loved the challenge. When they learned that the Boulder Mountain Lodge was looking for new operators for its adjacent restaurant, they made the leap and haven’t looked back.
The grill and lodge are hidden from the passersby on state Route 12 behind a small cluster of aspens. Boulder through the windshield looks less like a town than simply a cluster of houses. A little filling station marks where one side road joins the highway. A small diner nails down the other lonely intersection. No stop signs delay the SUVs and RVs passing through. But like the grill itself, Boulder doesn’t settle into any pigeon hole. Next to the diner sits a trading post offering espresso, free wi-fi, and work by internationally known local artists. And state Route 12 is a lot busier than it was 10 years ago.
Route 12, the grill’s umbilical cord to the outside, connects Bryce Canyon National Park, 75 miles south of Boulder, to Capitol Reef National Park, 45 miles to the north. The 1996 creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in between gave tourists a new reason to explore the narrow canyons and skinny rock ridges nearer to Boulder. [View Map]
In addition, the highway’s designation in 2002 as an All-American Road (one of only about a dozen in the American West) has drawn Europeans—and their high-value euros—to this way-west region. With longer hours than Boulder’s other two restaurants, Hell’s Backbone Grill attracts plenty of outsiders, even if they initially had little idea about the philosophy behind its food and menu.
In the early days, the grill “wasn’t fancy enough for fancy people,” Spalding says, and the notion of a “casual-class place-based eatery” drew some puzzled looks. Some customers still ask why there’s no seafood on the menu and subscribe to the idea that “fancy food is food from faraway.” (Though one bite of the pecan-cornmeal encrusted red trout obliterates any longings for ocean fare.) Still, these days a restaurant that serves mostly locally grown food — even if it’s in the middle of nowhere — seems entirely normal. So normal that in May, even President Obama took his wife to New York City’s Blue Hill restaurant, renowned for its top-flight, local and seasonal dishes served with casual elegance.
It’s great, Spalding says, that there are now so many first-class organic restaurants. But as the gospel of fresh, local food has spread across the country, Spalding had what she calls a small identity crisis several seasons ago. “Are we even special anymore?” she asked herself.
Her answer was to expand the restaurant’s smallish garden out front into a full-fledged farm three miles south. In the four years since the farm began, it’s made the restaurant more self-sufficient. And, says Spalding, it’s taken “the whole process to a deeper level.”
Part 2: Five years ago, Hell’s Backbone Grill’s farm was a horse pasture. This season it will produce 10,000 pounds of vegetables as the restaurant sinks its roots into the community.
Part 3: Utah’s new slow-food mecca faces culture clash over its future.