When I heard from a writer friend that her sister and cooking partner, both former chefs on whitewater rivers trips, had opened a restaurant in southern Utah, I vowed to get there someday. In summer of 2021, after a raft trip on the Green River, my wife and I drove the serpentine blue highways to the tiny hamlet of Boulder, Utah. This is free-range country — we had to stop occasionally for bulls and cows in the road that acted as invincible as their bovine cousins in India. After a long drive we pulled into Boulder (pop. 240) around sunset. It was well worth the effort to reach the most remote fine-dining restaurant in the U.S.

The story, for a magazine called The Traveler’s Table, was originally assigned at 1,500 words, then cut to 1,150 then to 800 as the editor said she was losing pages due to getting fewer ads than expected. Below is my original story in its full glory, click here to see the shorter version on the magazine’s site.


A Culinary Oasis

Generous farm-to-table cuisine perfect after days spent in national parks

By Michael Shapiro

Photo of Hell’s Backbone Grill courtesy of the restaurant

Located in the red-rock splendor of south-central Utah, Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm is the most remote fine-dining restaurant in the continental United States. Founded by two women who honed their cooking skills on whitewater rafting trips through the Grand Canyon, Hell’s Backbone is a culinary oasis in the high desert.

As my wife and I drove last summer through the undulating canyons of Capitol Reef National Park, we listened to a story in The New Yorker magazine about Hell’s Backbone and its against-all-odds success.

Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle had never attended culinary school, were liberals in a deeply conservative ranching community, and followed the teachings of Buddhism in a heavily Mormon region.

“We wanted to do clean food, beautifully served, with love and care,” co-founder and chef Blake Spalding told me. The restaurant opened in 2000, in the heart of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which had been designated by President Clinton just four years earlier.

“We were certainly the first rural restaurant to endeavor what we did, and we remain one of the only women-owned, woman-cheffed restaurants that has its own farm and no outside investors,” Spalding said. She’d started cooking for her family when she was eight and, like Castle, by her teens was working as a restaurant cook.

Spalding and Castle wanted to create a restaurant “that I would want to work in and that I would want to eat in.” Their goal has been to host a nightly dinner party where you can get wholesome, flavorful, local food that’s gorgeously prepared and doesn’t cost a fortune. Appetizers typically cost $10 to $15, entrees range from $27 to $44.

In the foreword to Castle and Spalding’s 2004 cookbook, With a Measure of Grace, author Terry Tempest Williams said the two chefs came to Boulder with “baskets of instinct and secrets about the power of food and its potential for glory.”

After dining at Hell’s Backbone she wrote: “What lingers after a slow, thoughtful dinner is love. We are reminded through the creative hands of these believing women that daily renewal is possible through the loving gesture of a meal dreamed and shared.”

Hell’s Backbone Grill, named for a nearby bridge that spans a 1,500-foot-deep canyon, was a semi-finalist in the 2022 James Beard Foundation Awards for Outstanding Restaurant and has received rave reviews from Zagat.

I’d heard about Hell’s Backbone from a savvy travel advisor who said that if we visit Utah, we should stop there. When I wondered if it was on our way, she said authoritatively: “Make it on the way; you’ll be glad you did.”

From Green River, where we stayed while embarking on day trips to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Google Maps said it’d take 2 hours and 37 minutes to drive to Hell’s Backbone, but that didn’t account for stopping to let free-roaming cattle pass.

We drove through Capitol Reef National Park, then climbed a steep hill with views for miles and miles before descending toward our destination. There’s not much in Boulder: no bank or traffic light or supermarket, just a couple of lodges and one of the most unlikely restaurants in the western U.S.

With Blake Spalding chef and co-owner of Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah

Arriving just before dusk, we found Hell’s Backbone illuminated by strings of outdoor lights and garnished with colorful prayer flags. We were seated on the patio right away. (You can now eat indoors as well.)

We were happy to dine outdoors, though at 6,700 feet above sea level, it can get chilly after sunset. After a week of river rafting and long hikes through the stunning canyonlands of the Southwest, my wife and I were ready for some satisfying food.

Castle is more introverted and typically manages the kitchen; Spalding greets guests like old friends, making her way from table to table during the evening.

The restaurant, which seats about 75 people, is casual and unpretentious; we dined on the patio in our shorts. The food is divine: salad with a variety of lettuces from Hell’s Backbone’s nearby farm, Boulder Beef Braise with meat from local ranchers, smoked trout pappardelle.

Hell’s Backbone is all about place, a destination restaurant in the truest sense. The salad dressing was so bright that the flavors sparkled. The beef was hearty and energizing, the trout in the pasta tasted so fresh it tasted like it was caught mere hours before the fish hit the pan.

The exceptional food was enhanced by the breathtaking Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument — the yellow, orange and ochre hues of the surrounding hills glowing deeply in the setting sun.

“It’s a landscape so beautiful, it will forever change your perception of what the American West really looks like,” Spalding said.

Heidi Bourne, a meditation teacher from Northern California, first dined at Hell’s Backbone about 12 years ago and returns often. “I never felt before the way I felt when I walked in that restaurant, which was completely at home,” she said.

“I had this feeling of, Oh, I know this place, I belong here. I can relax and enjoy. And this food is going to be exactly right. I felt the depth of love that goes into creating such wholesome, delicious, creative, vibrant food.”

Boulder (Utah not Colorado, pop. 400 according to the U.S. Census though locals say the true number is around 275), is considered one of the United States’ most remote settlements. Letters were delivered by mule there until the early 1942. Electricity came to Boulder in 1947.

In spring of 2000 before opening the restaurant, Spalding and Castle invited the local community to an open house where they could enjoy Hell’s Backbone’s cuisine for free.

Many locals were skeptical about the young, brash outsiders, but after getting to know them, and after they began hiring the town’s young people, Spalding and Castle were welcomed into the community. Locals dine there regularly.

After 23 seasons — Hell’s Backbone is open from April through November — Spalding says she and Castle now feel a sense of “rootedness” in their adopted home.

“Jen and I just understood the power of an extraordinary landscape and a lovingly prepared meal,” Spalding said. “You’re in this amazing place, it really affects people and opens their hearts.”

After cooking in makeshift kitchens in riverside camps along the Colorado River, Castle and Spalding became business partners.

“We relate to ourselves as two wings of one bird, so everything is deeply collaborative,” Spalding said. “Alone, we’re each one person, but together we’re like five. Everyone thinks we’re a couple. We’re not a couple; we’re excellent business partners and friends.”

Still, creating a restaurant that met their lofty standards and making it financially viable has been “incredibly challenging and complicated.”

They’d thought: “How hard could it be? There’s running water, electricity and a roof.” Later, Spalding said, they realized their “hilarious naiveté.”

Part of the challenge is their commitment to the place they call home. They feature local food of the Southwest; in creating the menu, they ask: “Does this food makes sense here? Is it food that has a relationship to this place?”

When you go to a restaurant in Italy, Spalding said, they’ll serve “Italian jam, Italian ham, Italian lamb.’ They’re proud of what they produce in that region. And there wasn’t a thing like that in Utah.”

Castle grew up in New Mexico and created one of Hell’s Backbone’s most popular items, the Jenchilada, an enchilada filled with green-chili beef or calabacitas (small squashes, the veggie option) in a habanero cream sauce, served with cilantro rice.

Other regional favorites include Three Sisters Posole with black beans and butternut squash and Green Chile Beef Stew with pinto beans and farm carrots.

The menu depends on what’s growing at that time and varies greatly from spring to fall. Some produce, such as grapes used in the Champagne Grape Chicken, are “here and gone,” Spalding said, so you’ll only get them when they’re harvested.

There are favorites available from spring to fall, “like our meatloaf, which is incredibly popular,” she said. “I’ve tried taking meatloaf off the menu, and the customers completely freak out.”

Those who dine at Hell’s Backbone “literally leave with part of Boulder in them,” Spalding said, acknowledging that some items — such as olive oil, cheeses, coffee and wine — come from afar.

Mmmmm pie!
Photo my Michael Shapiro

The restaurant is open for dinner seven days a week, so Castle and Spalding work nearly every day from April through November.

What makes it worthwhile? Spalding said they have a “secret mission.” Every season they ask: “How can we make the world a little bit better with what we have to offer?”

Bourne, the woman who has been traveling from California to Hell’s Backbone for years, said she simply enjoys being in the convivial space Spalding and Castle created.

“It’s such a draw, it’s magnetic,” Bourne said. “The food is so creative. They’re serious about the quality; it’s high cuisine. They’re not messing around.”

The restaurant has made visiting the 1.87-million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante and the surrounding lands “even better because we knew we could get spectacular food,” she said.

When people ask Bourne what her most beloved restaurant is, she instantly replies, “My very, very favorite restaurant anywhere is Hell’s Backbone.”

After concluding our meal with the vanilla-glazed Sour Cherry and Rhubarb Slab Pie, my wife and I wholeheartedly agree. Our next Southwest trip might look like a visit to national parks, but our ultimate pursuit will be to revisit Hell’s Backbone.

— — —

Hell’s Backbone Grill is located in Boulder, Utah, about two hours drive east of Bryce Canyon National Park. Spalding and Castle have written two cookbooks — With a Measure of Grace and This Immeasurable Place — available through www.hellsbackbonegrill.com.

To read more about Blake and Jen and HBG, as well their fight to save nearby Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, read this profile about them in The New Yorker.