Photos by Scot Zimmerman and  Adam Finkle

Early autumn—that welcome window of time between the end of busy summer and the hustle and bustle of the holidays—is the perfect time to gather casually with friends over dinner and drinks. That’s how Sara and Brett Toliver saw it as they planned a special dinner party in Ogden. For a surprising twist, they hosted the evening away from home and, instead, invited friends to The Urban Studio—a chic loft overlooking the city’s lively Historic 25th Street. There, they enlisted Cuisine Unlimited Catering and executive chef Steve Ulibarri to prepare a season-inspired, family-style menu in the venue’s open kitchen and then relaxed as the room’s warehousey charm, the chef’s delicious menu and the close circle of friends combined to make the fall evening magical.

Hostess Sara Toliver greets party guests.

The Setting

“Sometimes the reality of work schedules, raising children and getting your house ready makes the idea of throwing a party overwhelming, so you just don’t do it,” says Sara. The Urban Studio—a new rentable venue in Ogden—solved this dilemma for Sara and set this fete apart from the typical housebound dinner party. Guests gathered in the spectacularly renovated top floor of the two-story, 122-year-old building located in the thick of Ogden’s vibrant Historic 25th Street. “The building was originally a grocery store, then everything from a bar and brothel to a storage and shipping space,” says owner Jo Packham, creative dynamo and the globe-trotting creator/editor-in-chief of Where Women Cook, a quarterly magazine celebrating female foodies worldwide. She is also Sara’s mother. Packham recently converted the studio space into a luxed-out loft by infusing it with imaginative features and one-of-a-kind details. She exposed original brick walls from beneath plaster and opened and reinforced the beamed ceiling to create a rustic urban backdrop for her spirited design. Industrial lighting, copper railings and a swoon-worthy open kitchen now team with dazzling floor-to-ceiling glass shelves displayed with ready-to-use stemware, tableware, linens and decor items Packham collected over many years and now constantly curates.

Made with Oomaw Gin from the New World Distillery in Eden, the custom cocktail includes black currant liqueur and a honey stick garnish.
Packham teamed with Ellis Planing Mill and THM Construction to create the 12-foot-long, zinc-topped farm table stylishly set for the festive dinner party.
The table’s low-profile floral arrangements allow conversation and the passing of platters to flow freely during the family-style dinner.
Executive chef Steve Ulibarri prepares season-inspired dishes while visiting with party guests Kim and Nick Bowsher.

The Crowd

“We all live in Ogden, love this city and are passionate about the community,” says Sara, president and CEO of Visit Ogden. Party guests included Kim Bowsher, Executive Director of the Ogden Downtown Alliance; Danette Pulley, Marketing Consultant and Community Ambassador; Sydnie Furton, Marketing and P.R. Manager, Visit Ogden, and restaurateurs Emily and Steve Ballard. Business professionals and fellow Ogden-advocates Brett Toliver, Craig Pulley, Nick Bowsher and Andy Furton rounded out the circle of friends. Throughout the evening, lively conversation moved from kids to city tourism, family vacations to the downtown farmers market. “One of the cool things about being a part of this community is how people make friendships out of professional relationships,” Sara says. “It’s fun to see personalities and backgrounds come together and make things happen in a city we love so much.”

Emily Ballard, Sara Toliver and Danette Pulley fine-tune the table setting before the group sits down to eat.

The Tabletop

The party’s theme—fun, festive and casual—guided Packham as she set the 12-foot-long French farmhouse table with vibrant, mismatched place settings creatively anchored by a mix of woven placemats and cutting boards unconventionally positioned lengthwise from each chair. “This helps fill the open space down the center of the table,” says Packham. So, too, do fanciful votives, thick-glass goblets, striped woven napkins and a slew of low-profile floral arrangements all unified by a riot of brilliant colors. Light from a skylight above creates a muted glow on the table’s zinc-covered top. “Decorating a party is a big stressor for people; they would much rather spend time with their guests,” says Sara, who relished playing host without being burdened with typical tasks. “Here, I didn’t have to lift a finger—it was fantastic!”

Friends toast the evening (bottom left clockwise): Brett and Sara Toliver, Craig and Danette Pulley, Kim and Nick Bowsher, Emily and Steve Ballard, Sydnie and Andy Furton
Executive Chef Steve Ulibarri plates a large dish of shrimp and grits.
The green fall harvest salad includes chunks of sweet potato, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries and goat cheese.

The Meal

As friends arrived, Sara greeted them with a tray of appetizers—individually prepared spoons of butternut squash puree with andouille sausage and sage. Her husband Brett jump-started the festivities by inviting guests to pour themselves custom gin cocktails or to choose distinctive glasses from the shelves for wine or berry-infused water. The group then mingled on the back deck overlooking a private garden and wandered the studio perusing countless collections displayed on glass shelves along a wall. Meanwhile, Chef Ulibarri prepared the courses while chatting with guests gathered around the gleaming, open kitchen. Eventually, the party moved to the long farm table where large platters and dishes of food were delivered and presented family-style. “We served ourselves like we would at a party held in one our homes,” Sara says. “It took the stuffiness out of eating out.” The meal began with a fall harvest salad, followed by shrimp and grits, grilled lamb chops, roasted root vegetables and sea salt flatbread. Ulibarri placed an apple and pear tart on a nearby table from which guests leisurely served themselves as the evening moved from dinner to dessert. “Everyone lingered and didn’t want the special evening end,” Sara recalls. “Given the great company, food and setting, is there any wonder why?” 

The Cocktail: The Currant Situation

1 oz fresh-squeezed lemon

3 oz Oomaw Gin

1/2 oz Black Currant Liqueur

1/2 oz honey simple syrup

Shake with ice, strain and pour. Garnish with honey stick (optional).

Recipe from New World Distillery, Eden, Utah

The Menu

Starter: Butternut Squash Puree

Served in individual spoons and topped with andouille sausage and fried sage

Salad: Fall Harvest Salad

Field greens with chunks of sweet potato, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries and goat cheese with champagne vinaigrette

Main Course:
Spice-marinated Grilled Lamb Chops

Served with crispy shaved brussels sprouts

Shrimp and Parmesan Grits

With spicy andouille sausage and fresh basil

Roasted Root Vegetable Platter

Yellow squash, zucchini, carrots, golden beets, cauliflower, fingerling potatoes and radicchio, served with pepita hummus

Dessert: Apple and Pear Galette

Garnished with blackberries

Featured image: A stunning open kitchen, open beamed ceiling and exposed brick walls help create the striking décor of The Urban Studio, a venue for parties, cooking demonstrations, business meetings and classes

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Brad Mee
Brad Mee is the Editor-in-Chief of Utah Style & Design Magazine.