ASPEN - Elevation, the underground restaurant on East Hopkins Avenue that's been doing business for more than a dozen years, plans to go out with a bang.
Saturday, a party in the style of Studio 54 gets under way around 10 p.m., after dinner hours. The employees will move some tables around to provide a dance floor. A similar bash is being planned for March 30.
"It's bittersweet," co-owner Tommy Tollesson said Friday. Elevation's lease expires March 31; last year, Tollesson and his partner Gunnar Sachs couldn't reach an agreement on a new lease with the building's owner.
"It's like the end of a marriage," Tollesson said. "But it's time, you know?"
In April, Square Grouper, a startup seafood restaurant with an emphasis on New Orleans fare, Cajun cuisine and South Florida-patterned dishes, will take over the space. The official opening is being planned for May 10.
Just as Elevation is winding down with a festive spirit, Square Grouper is hoping to create a new one in the same spot.
"We're going to bring Bourbon Street to Aspen," said co-owner and general manager Mike Goldman. "Basically, we're going to be a New Orleans/Cajun-style fish-shack bar."
He said he and his team recently took a trip to New Orleans and ate at a few of the Crescent City's renowned spots: Jacque Imo's, Acme Oyster House, Mother's, Drago's, Redfish Grill - even the small French Quarter corner grocery the Verti Marte.
"We did nothing but eat for five days," Goldman said.
In sampling the world-famous cuisine in the City that Care Forgot, a flood of ideas overcame them, and they decided not to emphasize the South Florida style that dominated their original plan.
"As we started building the menu more and more, we noticed it naturally was becoming more Cajun," Goldman said. "And so we said, 'Wait a minute. If we play with this, let's maybe change the attitude and change the decor and do the live music.' And people started responding so well to it."
In fact, Square Grouper entered its "Jackalope" gumbo in the recent SoupSkol competition, and it was a hit with the crowd, taking first place. It had chicken, shrimp and a custom sausage consisting of rabbit, antelope, pork and habanero peppers.
"We're going to have oysters on the half shell, po-boys, fried catfish and other types of fish entrees, hush puppies, Abita beer, red beans and rice - a lot of the things you'd find at a Louisiana seafood place," he said. "Maybe even Dixie beer in the bottle."
A local restaurant and bar veteran, Tom Slanga, has been tapped as head chef. Goldman's partner in the venture is Jesse Wey. They've signed a five-year lease with an option for another five years.
They want to book live music on a regular basis - with an emphasis on local bands, perhaps twice a week - and have secured a piano for nightly entertainment.
"We're going to have lunch to late-night food," Goldman said. "It's going to be easy, easy ... 'The Big Easy,' you might say. You might even see some barbecue on the menu, too."
As for the future of Elevation, Tollesson said he's looked around town for another space, but nothing that's available is the right fit.
"There's not a whole lot out there, really," he said. "We looked at the old Steak Pit and Silver Queen properties. We want something more visible from the street."
He plans to spend this summer in his native Sweden. He still holds out hope for resurrecting Elevation in some form, maybe next winter.
"I can't believe it's been here as long as it has," he said. "I've had an incredible amount of fun. There are easier ways to make a living, but it's been very rewarding work."
Most of his staff of 23 decided to stay at the restaurant until the end, he added.
Goldman said that although his lease begins on April 1, he's going to give Elevation a few days in April to close out smoothly.
"Those guys at Elevation have been nothing but amazing," Goldman said. "We really want to make sure the transition goes over as well as possible. They've been such stellar guys."