BOULDER The packed dining room at Hell's Backbone Grill is a "Who's Who" of cool and groovy people one Sunday night late this summer.
Josh Bernstein, star of the History Channel's "Digging for the Truth" show, is with a friend at Table 2. A world-renowned adventure photographer is at Table 8. Someone from "Lord of the Rings" movie fame is seated nearby. Davia Nelson of the Peabody Award-winning public radio show "The Kitchen Sisters" is out on the patio.
Blake Spalding and Jen Castle, who own the restaurant now at the heart of this Boulder community, take the evening in stride. They laugh with guests, supervise a busy kitchen and order special dishes. "I think you'll really like this," Spalding tells a visitor, setting down a warm plate of cornbread pudding with smoked trout and roasted poblano green chiles.
"We are so happy people love to come here and share our wonderful food," she beams. "This is exactly why we are here: to bring delicious food to people and make them happy."
Eight years ago the call of the Aquarius Plateau beckoned Spalding and Castle from Flagstaff, Ariz. They built their restaurant on the Buddhist principles of sustainability and right livelihood.
"We wanted to make a restaurant that was deeply place-based," she said one evening at the restaurant. "We wanted to represent this incredible place in the world through our food."
And, according to food critics, they have.
The restaurant has been lauded in O, the Oprah magazine; the New York Times; Sunset magazine; Bon Appetit; Organic Gardening; Outside Traveler; Travel and Leisure; the Washington Post and National Geographic Traveler.
An excerpt from the cookbook they've written, "A Measure of Grace," is in the current issue of Yoga Journal.
Business is booming, and this year the restaurant is staying open past Thanksgiving to accommodate visitors. And while the business continues to grow, so do Spalding and Castle grow increasingly committed to the southern Utah community they love.
Shortly after opening the restaurant, they hosted an ice-cream social for the whole town.
Today they have strong relationships with the farmers and ranchers whose roots run deep in Garfield County.
Their lamb, beef and pork are all from Boulder or from close by. The restaurant doesn't sell seafood. Why would it? asks Spalding. "It's a mistaken idea to eat seafood in the desert."
Vegetables come from the restaurant's organic farm nearby, which boasts 13 varieties of tomatoes, five kinds of peppers, 20 kinds of greens and myriad herbs. Fruits are gathered from the four local historic orchards or from the trees planted decades ago by the pioneers in what is now Capitol Reef National Park. Anyone can pick those fruits when they are ripe, and the restaurant does just that.
There's a cultural "disconnect" in America for dining consumers, Spalding said. And she and her colleagues and partners are all about reconnecting consumers to their simple roots of locally grown foods.
What makes sense is to use the food grown locally, to feature cuisine from the spectacular Four Corners region of the United States with influences from Pueblo Indians, Mormon pioneers, Western range "cowboy food" and the traditions of New Mexico."That," says Spalding, "is our palate."