Aspen Times Weekly: Horsing around at the Square Grouper |

Aspen Times Weekly: Horsing around at the Square Grouper

Horse Race
Getty Images | Photodisc

Kentucky Derby Bash

Aspen Square Grouper

May 3 at 2 p.m.

$40/advance; $45/door

Unlimited food/drink

304 E. Hopkins Ave.

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MIKE GOLDMAN AND Jesse Wey will find any excuse to throw a party. As owners of the Square Grouper, the subterranean New Orleans-inspired restaurant turned entertainment emporium on Hopkins Avenue, the pair has packed a lot of revelry into the past few months. Celebrations for everything from Groundhog Day to Mardi Gras to Aspen Mountain closing have mingled with hush puppy-eating contests, crawfish boils, and chicken ’n’ waffles brunch. Promos sponsored by the likes of Red Bull and Jim Beam and tap takeovers by New Belgium and Telluride brewing companies are regular occurrences.

Square Grouper, outfitted with 80s-era bubble hockey, vintage Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Playstation3 gaming consoles, and a baby grand piano, has also become a hub for leisurely pursuits. It’s the unofficial post-curling league meet-up spot and home to a weekly dart league. “The Big Easy Brain Teasy” trivia nights takeover Thursdays and bands and solo artists crank out funky jazz and jam rock most Fridays and Saturdays. DJs spin regularly, and you can bet a round of Hurricanes that the next big sports game will be projected on the nearly 10-foot TV, plus other screens scattered throughout the venue. It’s become a place where Fat Tuesday happens frequently, fellow service folk are honored with spontaneous “Industry Nights,” and every Sunday is a Funday.

This Saturday, Goldman brings a four-year-old personal tradition to the Square Grouper: His annual Kentucky Derby viewing party.

“I remember sitting and watching it in some of the final stages of construction,” Goldman says of last year’s Derby. (In years past, friends gathered at his house.) “We weren’t yet open. Just ten of us, hanging out having mint juleps together.”

Suddenly it dawns on him: Square Grouper’s first birthday is fast approaching. While fledgling restaurateurs Goldman and Wey nabbed the 2013 Soupsköl first-place trophy months before they opened the eatery, they’ve faced plenty of critiques. Some said Grouper’s original bill of Southern fare (Alligator! Conch ceviche! Okra stew!) was overly ambitious, or worse, too heavy. Others complained of spotty service, a common issue plaguing startup operations and even many established restaurants in this ski town. As the longtime pals — both former bartenders in town, and now occasional bartenders at Grouper — have learned since opening last May: Running a restaurant is tough. Running a restaurant in a take-no-prisoners seasonal snowglobe called Aspen is even tougher.

“We did a lot of learning in this first year,” Goldman says. He’s candid, but eternally optimistic. “It came to me very quickly: You know what, maybe we’re just not a restaurant. Maybe we’re a bar that throws parties. And I’m perfectly OK with that.”

That’s not to say Square Grouper is jettisoning executive chef Tom Slanga’s Cajun- and Creole-infused menu as if a parcel of pot thrown overboard in the Florida Keys.

“No question, the food’s not gonna change,” Goldman confirms. “It’s very casual and easy. The barbecue has been fun, but if we’ve got a different theme every night, I’m a happy guy.” (See “Party for People,” opposite page.)

And so, the Kentucky Derby. The bash at Square Grouper kicks off on Saturday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $40 in advance or $45 at the door, and include unlimited food and drink; festive attire — bright pants, blazers, and neckties for the guys; frilly sun dresses, fancy gloves, and fascinators for the gals — is strongly suggested, if not to take Instagram-worthy photos on the step and repeat then to snag a handsome prize for most dapper men’s suit or outrageous women’s hat.

“Living in the mountains where it’s freezing half the year, it’s sort of like the kickoff to spring,” Goldman says. With bold outfits, natch. Goldman and co-host Aidan Wynn will don “the most hideous seersucker suits known to man,” he adds with a laugh.

But as this occasion fêtes the race known around the world as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports” — really, the record Derby time to beat is one minute, 59 seconds, set by Secretariat in 1979 — a big part of the afternoon is the food and drink free-for-all.

Square Grouper will serve an array of soul food à la passed apps: Open-faced shrimp po-boy crostini; baby BLTs with house-cured-and-smoked bacon; bourbon-glazed mini devils on horseback; bite-size boudin balls made with slow-braised pork shoulder and chicken liver rolled with rice, breaded, and flash fried until crispy; tiny crunchy pecan pies. Call ’em petite versions of menu MVPs.

“We’re trying to bring out that Southern hospitality in our food,” Goldman explains. “Lighter fare, but something to help out with all the drinks we’ll be serving.”

Libations include fresh watermelon vodka punch, Dolce Vida tequila cocktails, and Wynn’s “famous mint julep,” plus house wines and PBR and New Belgium Blonde on draft. If the weather cooperates, the patio upstairs on the sidewalk will be open, too.

“This is our season to shine and play,” Goldman says. Grouper’s oyster and absinthe bar is ready to rock, paying homage encore to the good life in the French Quarter.

Despite the hoopla around the Kentucky Derby, “I’ll be amazed if anyone even pays attention to the race,” Goldman quips. “It’s three minutes of glory after hours of partying.”

Just how Square Grouper like it.

Amanda Rae is rooting for California Chrome on Saturday. Wanna make a bet?

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