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All is not swell at Hell's Backbone Grill

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All is not swell at Hell's Backbone Grill

eat this | Oct 28, 2008 08:02 PM

On a recent trip to Utah's canyon country we had breakfast, dinner and a takeout picnic lunch at the well-known Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah. To summarize the food, in order of the meals as we had them, breakfast was excellent, dinner was decent and the takeout picnic lunch was disgusting and inedible. The tab for all three meals was quite stiff at around $175.00 total for two people with no wine at dinner and the restaurant's service overall was mediocre to poor.

Let’s break it down in detail, beginning with breakfast.

When we arrived at 10AM on a weekday in late October, the restaurant was sunny and pleasant with large windows overlooking the lovely grounds of The Boulder Mountain Lodge where Hell's Backbone Grill is situated. We had the place to ourselves except for several staff members who were variously ordering food from purveyors, setting tables and performing other tasks in the background.

A plate of eggs with a large spicy bison sausage link was perfectly cooked and delicious. The accompanying smashed potatoes fried crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside and the chewy oatmeal toast were hearty and satisfying. Our other breakfast was a fine French toast made with the oatmeal bread which was moist and well-cooked, accompanied by good maple syrup and homemade cranberry jam.

The only clinkers were the lackluster service and the price. No coffee or water refills were ever offered--despite us being the only table and having a waitress and three other staff members wandering around the dining room the entire time we were there plus the check was pretty steep overall ($55.00 before tip, including $3.00 each for small mugs of coffee with no refills) for a simple breakfast out in the boonies.

Dinner two evenings later began with the hostess delivering a long-winded proclamation of the restaurant's "philosophy" of using only locally-sourced fresh meats and produce and vegetables from the restaurant's own garden (Apparently, these notions are still a revelation here.) followed by an equally lengthy recitation of the evening's various and complicated specials, the vast majority of which sounded truly dreadful--bizarre concoctions devised perhaps by a malicious child let loose in the kitchen such as chilled pumpkin and apple soup--does anyone really eat this stuff?? When it came time to order, the "fresh, seasonal, local" language went instantly out the window--our basic-training-challenged server hadn’t the foggiest idea of where the beef came from or of who produced it--"Maybe from somewhere in Colorado?" Also, inexplicably, they were out of a roasted garlic appetizer even though it was prominently listed on the printed menu. Any restaurant in this area which runs out of garlic in October, doesn't have much of a garden and isn't doing much buying from local area farmers.

We ordered the least fussy sounding dinner items of the eight or so selections available on the menu and specials, the New York Strip Steak with spice rub, "lemony mashed" potatoes and "organic vegetable medley" and the Chipotle meatloaf with "red chile crema", lemony mashed potatoes and organic vegetable medley.

The large and attractive strip steak ($32.00) arrived properly cooked with a blackened spice rub crust and had a deep beefy flavor suggesting an appropriate amount of dry-aging. The potatoes were flavorful, although not of lemon, with a nice rustic texture. The "organic vegetable medley" looked like something out of the compost pile. Some sort of indistinguishable brown tuber combined with stringy orange-ish roast squash all topped with a cold spear of lifeless steam-table broccoli. This "medley" would have been unacceptable at a Denny's and should certainly have never been served on this or any other plate. The Chipotle meatloaf ($23.00) was a thick slab of moist, nicely-seasoned meatloaf which unfortunately, was drenched with what seemed like a gallon of a red chile crema which bore a distinct resemblance to commercial bottled Russian dressing and was accompanied by the same atrocious vegetable medley and limp broccoli spear.

Again, as at our previous breakfast, the service was lackluster, the waitress well-meaning, but clearly out of her depth, despite having only a couple tables at most. There were three other servers on the floor with only 21 people seated (out of 42 total capacity) when we arrived at 6:30PM. Midway through our meal a six-top and a four-top were seated and the service instantly plummeted from okay to awful, careening headlong into the weeds.

We decided to beat a hasty retreat and after asking three times for our check ($103.00 for two, no wine, no dessert, no coffee) and waiting at least fifteen minutes to get it we left without even bothering to order dessert or coffee which we thought we would not have gotten anyway given the utterly chaotic way things were then going in the dining room. (How things could possibly be so completely disorganized at a two-thirds-full 42 seat reservations-only restaurant at 8PM on a Saturday night remains a mystery.) On the way out the door we managed to put in an order for two sandwiches from the nice-sounding, and prominently-displayed-on-every-table takeout picnic lunch menu to be picked up the next morning at 8AM before departing on our day's hike.

Next day, in the midst of a lovely and strenuous hike we stopped and hungrily opened our two takeout sandwiches in eager anticipation-- a BLT on a homemade sage roll and a salami and provolone cheese also on a homemade sage roll--and nearly passed out with dismay. Both sandwiches were just ghastly. They had clearly been made the night before--an inexcusable and amateurish no-no, particularly with a BLT whose tomato was predictably rotten, smelly and had oozed all over the two tiny strips of washed-out bacon buried deep within the mushy bread. The so-called salami and provolone cheese sandwich had no provolone at all and barely any salami either-- just an overly thick, stale and crumbly sage roll with the saggy, brittle consistency of an old couch. Nauseating, and instantly into the trash for both ($9.75 each, with nothing--no chips, pickle, cole slaw or potato salad included) Needless to say we were furious at being the victims of such a total rip-off and also for having to starve our way through the rest of our hike. There being little else available in the area we stopped at a Subway in a Phillips 66 gas station in the neighboring town of Torrey for sandwiches which looked and tasted light-years better than the so-called "Take a little bit of heaven-to-go" "lunch" from Hell's Backbone Grill at half the price and with none of the HBG's hypocritical BS about "local, sustainable, fresh garden picked" etc.

At the end of the day, we think Hell's Backbone Grill might have been an exciting place to eat at some point well back in their dozen or so year old history. Today, it's running a cynical, old formula scam--they've got a monopoly on the wallets of a consistent, captive stream of well-heeled, often new-agey tourists passing through with very few other places to eat in a very isolated region and they have learned they can get away with just being "good enough" even though to any knowledgeable diner it is most definitely not even close to good enough. There is clearly little or no overall quality control and direction, the service is ragged and clueless and their procedures are just plain sloppy. But no matter. Their "purer than thou" attitude is well dialed-in, their handsome cookbook is published, their breathless and outdated listing is in all the area guidebooks and they're obviously and deliberately cutting every single corner they can to make as much money as possible. No coffee refills. No cheese on the salami and cheese sandwich. No chips, pickles or potato salad along with the nauseating ten-dollar lunch sandwiches as even the meanest New York delis will do for half the price, but you can order a single hard-boiled egg to go at $2.00 a pop!

What they clearly don't have at Hell's Backbone Grill is anyone who cares about something other than squeezing out every last nickel at the helm--in three visits, we never once saw an owner on the premises. Perhaps they were away on a cookbook-signing tour? It reminds us of why the British call an empty wine bottle a "dead soldier". The body is there but the spirit is gone.

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