A remote Utah restaurant has just received an honor reserved for the best eateries in the nation.
Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, located in tiny Boulder, Utah, has become the first Utah restaurant to become a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards — the dining industry’s most prestigious honor — in the category of “outstanding restaurant.”
Two Salt Lake City establishments were named semifinalists in other categories: Water Witch, a bar at 163 W. 900 South, was chosen in the “outstanding bar program”; and Valter’s Osteria, a fine-dining restaurant at 173 W. 300 South, was named in the “outstanding hospitality” category. Both are first-time semifinalists.
The James Beard Foundation, which bestows the awards, announced its finalists, or “nominees,” on Wednesday; none of the Utah semifinalists made the finals. Winners among the nominees will be announced in June.
For Jen Castle and Blake Spalding, the owners of Hell’s Backbone, the honor is recognition for the remote, farm-to-table restaurant they have run for the last 22 years.
“I’m trying not to pin a lot of hope on Wednesday,” Spalding said. “It’s just a huge honor to be recognized in this way because the James Beards are the corollary of the Oscar for the film industry. … It’s a really big deal to be in the best picture category.”
It is the fifth time the James Beard Awards have recognized Hell’s Backbone, but the first on a national level. Castle and Spalding were semifinalists for the “best chef” category in the Southwest region in 2017, 2018 and 2019 — and a nominee for best chef in the Mountain region in 2020.
The 2020 honor, Spalding said, “was really exciting. But then they canceled the awards ceremony. We were hopeful we would be nominated again for the Mountain region, but then it was quite surprising to wake up … and find that we’d landed in the national category.”
Chefs at three Utah restaurants were named semifinalists in the Mountain region for 2022: Mike Blocher and Nick Fahs at Table X, 1457 E. 3350 South, Salt Lake City; Logen Crew and Paul Chamberlain at SLC Eatery, 1017 S. Main St., Salt Lake City; and Briar Handly at Handle, 136 Heber Ave., Park City. (The five regional finalists are all in or near Denver.)
Spalding noted the many things that sets Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm apart from most restaurants.
“The main difference is that we’re in one of the most remote towns in the lower 48, in a town inside Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument,” she said. “That makes everything more complicated, because we don’t have access to a linen service. Bringing in a repair person takes much longer. When the power goes out, we have to carry on and keep serving in the dark with propane.”
Because of its remoteness, the restaurant is truly farm-to-table, and gives opportunity to rural Utah food producers, particularly its neighbors in Garfield County.
“The bulk of our meat comes from local ranchers. We don’t serve meat at all unless it’s humanely and cleanly raised,” Spalding said. “Most of our produce comes from our own farm, so a farm crew of four to five people, plus some volunteers and interns.”
Hell’s Backbone is also exceptional for its longevity — in an industry decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic — and for being a rare woman-owned business, with two women chefs.
“We don’t have investors,” Spalding said. “It’s always just been me and Jen and our team. And we have an incredible team of hardcore, long-term people who have worked with us for decades.”
When Castle and Spalding opened Hell’s Backbone in 2000, they grew a garden near the restaurant. Since 2005, they have operated a farm down the road, Blaker’s Acres, growing about 150 kinds of plants — veggies, herbs, flowers and fruits — and maintaining a flock of more than 100 hens.
What’s on the menu reflects what is happening on the land — or what happened last season.
When they open each spring, “our normal pattern is to feature a lot of the produce that we put up in traditional ways last fall,” Spalding said. “So we have a lot of things that are pickled or dried or frozen. For instance, we’ll serve pumpkin piñon enchiladas, and a beautiful pickle plate.”
They will supplement that with early spring veggies, like radishes, and use the eggs from their flock. “So we’ll have things like a spinach salad with a bacon dressing that has a poached egg on top,” Spalding said. “And our she-deviled eggs. Then pretty soon, weather depending, the asparagus crop will start to come in and we’ll be featuring asparagus.”
Their approach is rooted in being ecologically responsible, as well as honoring Utah’s culinary tradition and history. “Even how we put up all the jams and pickles, we’ve done in the way historically food was managed,” she said. But the menu is also structured for the 21st century, so anyone who visits — including vegans and keto devotees — will be able to order something that is nourishing and filling.
Hell’s Backbone is located on State Road 12 in Boulder, Utah — about a four-hour drive south from Salt Lake City.
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