OGDEN — There’ll be no more concessions made at the Ogden Amphitheater. Instead, diners can expect something a bit more, well … upscale.
Gone are the traditional burgers, hot dogs and ice cream — replaced by dishes like chicken tacos, Philly cheesesteaks and gourmet breakfast burritos. Even the typical concession fountain drinks are getting a new twist; customers are offered Mountain Dew with a shot of mango, for instance.
The new city-owned eatery, Backstage Bistro, is now serving breakfast and lunch a few mornings a week, as well as catering events at the amphitheater. Christy McBride, who is the Arts, Culture and Events Division manager for the city, said the bistro had a soft opening in May, and word is slowly getting out.
Current hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and during concerts and other events held at the amphitheater.
McBride says the number of programs at the amphitheater have doubled over the last couple of years. They’re now up to more than 80 events this year between May and September.
“As we grew, we recognized that with the bigger programming we were bringing in the community would demand more,” McBride said.
As it turns out, the infrastructure was there in the concession stand — electrical, gas and all — for a full-service kitchen. So, McBride says they invested last year’s budget to put in commercial upgrades. They also brought in Salt Lake City native Tanner Blonquist to run the new Backstage Bistro.
After attending Judge Memorial Catholic High School and bringing home state titles in both lacrosse and golf, Blonquist went off to play lacrosse for George Washington University — where he also earned a finance degree.
But Blonquist loved and missed Utah, and after school he moved back home. He ended up managing bars and pubs in Park City for about five years before meeting a South Ogden girl, marrying her and becoming an Ogdenite. The city approached him this past spring about being their new food and beverage coordinator.
“Tanner has got a ton of personality and high standards when it comes to food,” McBride said. “When I hired him, I thought he’d just cook hamburgers and hotdogs. But he refuses to do that, insisting on fresh, cooked-to-order recipes. We’ve nicknamed the place ‘Tannerland.’ ”
The mayor of Tannerland says he makes everything from scratch. He even makes his own sauces — including a spicy fry sauce that would make a native Utahn weep for joy.
Blonquist says he enjoys experimenting with foods and flavors, and he credits his mother with inspiring his culinary skills.
“When I was little, she’d have me sift the flour when she was baking,” he says. “Now, I’m not a good baker, but she incorporated me into the kitchen, and I love it.”
Blonquist has worked in various restaurants over the years — most notably in Washington, D.C., with chef Robert Wiedmaier. He says he’s taken those things he’s learned and added his own signature flavors.
“I’m never afraid to use people as guinea pigs,” Blonquist explains playfully. “I can do anything — you tell me what you want to eat, and I can do it.”
For example, for lunch Wednesday, customer Scott Lewis, of Ogden, had a steak taco salad — which isn’t even on the menu. But after telling Blonquist what he was craving, the fast-thinking cook came up with the dish.
“We cater to the customers’ imaginations,” Blonquist said. “But a lot of people don’t have culinary imagination, and that’s when I like to really engage them.”
Lewis said he was pleased with the results and said he’ll be back. The only drawback, near as he can tell, is that Backstage Bistro isn’t an easy place to find.
“That’s the hardest part,” Lewis said. “I did not know this place was here.”
For the record, the bistro is inside the Ogden Amphitheater, 343 Historic 25th St., immediately west of the theater’s stage. Blonquist suspects that as people discover it, he’ll end up with more than the dozen customers he sees some days.
McBride says the city isn’t trying to take business from any of the restaurants downtown.
“We’re not trying to corner any markets,” she said. “One of the things this does is to give our employees a place to grab a quick bite.”
Backstage Bistro is a one-man operation, with Blonquist taking the orders, cooking the food, delivering it, and handling the purchase. He admits that agreeing to run the kitchen was “scary.”
“I wasn’t scared that I couldn’t do it, but for me, I was scared that I might take something I love and turn it into an occupation,” he said. “But the good thing about this is that I’m not slaving as a line cook — I get to kick it with my customers.”
He’s also hoping for one more deep fryer in the kitchen, so he can finally do buffalo wings.
“I’ve got some killer sauces for wings,” he says.
Blonquist says he loves that his bosses in the city give him the freedom to explore with the new place. He calls the entire undertaking “an experimental process,” pointing out they haven’t even decided what will happen when winter sets in. Currently, there is no seating outside Backstage Bistro, other than the seats surrounding the amphitheater stage, but the city is hoping to add chairs and tables with umbrellas soon.
As for McBride, she just loves Blonquist’s food.
“Tanner’s signature breakfast burrito is the bomb,” she says. “I’ve never had a breakfast burrito like that. It has an over-easy egg, and he cooks with fresh-cut potatoes and a homemade jalapeno sauce.”
Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.