In remote southern Utah, Jen Murphy finds Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm is creating culinary experiences more than worth the drive
Photography by Ace Kvale
You won’t find an ATM or even a stoplight in Boulder, Utah, but you will find a pioneering farm-to-table restaurant that serves some of the most delicious organic meals in America. One of the most remote towns in the lower 48, Boulder is set on the edge of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The remoteness is what initially drew Blake Spalding and Jen Castle, the owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, to this town of just 200 people. Both women had been Grand Canyon river cooks. “We knew the power of wilderness, scenic beauty and a good meal,” Spalding says.
When the women opened the restaurant in 1999 farm-to-table was still an anomaly in America. “Back then there was this idea that food was only fancy if it came from far away, so people served lobster in Los Angeles and Chilean sea bass in Maine,” Spalding says. “There wasn’t a reverence for locally sourced food like there is today.” While restaurants such as Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, began to receive accolades for its visionary work with farmers, Spalding and Castle were quietly cooking three meals a day from organic ingredients grown on their 6-plus-acre farm.
Whispers of insanely good blue corn pancakes with whipped cinnamon butter and Spicy Green Chile Juniper Lamb Posole prepared in middle-of-nowhere Utah started to bring the restaurant-farm into the spotlight. Today, Hell’s Backbone has become a cult destination restaurant for rarefied diners. “People make reservations a year in advance,” says Spalding. “We have an outdoor communal table where we try to accommodate walk-ins.” Even though the restaurant now attracts the attention of the food world, Spalding and Castle still run the place on the same principles they started with 16 years ago.
Everything in the kitchen is prepared from scratch, from the jams to the oatmeal molasses bread that Spalding has been baking since she was 8 years old. Both women are practicing Buddhists and operate Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm with a commitment to sustainability, environmental ethics, and social and community responsibility. They’re steadfast in their commitment to only working with humanely raised animals. One year they couldn’t find a good supply chain of chicken so there was no chicken on the menu that year. And in a time when $200 tasting menus are en vogue, Hell’s Backbone remains affordable. Dinner entrées range from $18 to $38, and the restaurant offers a weed and feed deal, where guests can work four hours on the farm in return for dinner.
“We don’t want to make food just for the 1 percent,” Spalding says. “We want to feed teachers and river guides too. After all, that’s how we started.”