Square Grouper: A bit of Bourbon Street on Aspen’s East Hopkins Avenue
The Aspen Times
On a trip to New Orleans, Mike Goldman visited Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a candlelit piano bar on Bourbon Street that’s touted as the oldest drinking establishment in America. With a few beers in him, Goldman approached the owner.
“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Goldman said. “I’m stealing this and putting it in Colorado.”
The owner looked at him and said, “OK, well, wanna have a shot?”
However drunk the promise, Goldman followed through: Inspired by the New Orleans visit, he and his roommate, Jesse Wey, would later wheel an upright piano out of their Aspen trailer-park home and put it on the bed of a pickup truck. With Jesse banging away at the keys in the back, they drove to a space on East Hopkins Avenue, where they would open The Square Grouper restaurant together on May 17.
More than anything else, it was the atmosphere of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop that Goldman wanted to steal, the locals’ vibe of New Orleans. But in order to do that, they needed money. Initially, they had investors willing to back them.
“Very loosely — just handshakes, nothing on paper,” Goldman said. “And as things progressed, you know, we really wanted to do it ourselves.”
So they told the investors they were going to apply for a small-business loan and that if they got it, they would be moving forward alone. Around that time, they also were approached by the East Hopkins space’s landlord. Within a month, they had a deal on the lease but still no loan. It wasn’t until midway through construction that Alpine Bank approved it.
“Your heart was beating fast, and you weren’t sleeping very much,” said Goldman, a service-industry veteran who has worked in various capacities at Bad Billy’s Restaurant & Bar, Belly Up nightclub and Zane’s Tavern in Aspen. “Jesse and I were struggling.”
“It was a little tense but not too tense,” Wey said. “The loan was the last thing standing in our way, in a way, but we always knew we were going to get open, and it was just a waiting game.”
Once the loan went through, the direction of the restaurant was entirely in their hands. They were free to hire their own people and retain their own vision: a cross between fish shack and dive bar, with a Cajun-style menu. They were also free to come up with the name, The Square Grouper, a fishermen’s term for an illicit package dropped in the ocean by a drug runner. Wey said the name reflects their “laissez-faire” attitude toward dining.
“We appreciate good food and good wine and good drinks and good company, but we don’t want to be sticklers about it,” Wey said. “We want to keep it fun. We want to keep it light.”
Goldman and Wey have signed a five-year lease for the 2,700-square-foot space, with an option for another five years. The object, Goldman says, is to keep it a “local-owned, local-run and hopefully locally frequented restaurant.”
He talked about Grouper versus “cookie cutter” operations that cater to higher-end clientele in Aspen.
“We have awesome food in this town, and I’m happy to go out and eat at any of these restaurants, but sometimes I just want to dumb it down a little,” he said. “I want to serve shitty beer and keep it a great price point so that every local in town can come in and enjoy themselves and not carry that pretentious feeling in the restaurant.”
He described the Grouper as somewhere in the middle of Zane’s and Finbarr’s Irish Pub and Kitchen, a place where you can get a burger and a beer.
“I just want to make sure that all sides, or all ends of the spectrum, are taken care of,” he said.
Taking over after Elevation, the space’s previous occupant, they stripped down the interior and got rid of all partitions in order to open it up. They lengthened the bar and added TVs. As Goldman put it, “Turn the music up, dumb it down, and open it up.”
On opening night, turnout was greater than expected, and Goldman admits the kitchen was a bit backed up. But they’re working that out. They’re also dealing with the issues that come with an old building: broken sump-pumps, water heaters, coolers and freezers.
Bartender Kirk “K.C.” Clayton said making daily repairs is like “Band-Aiding cancer.” But Goldman and Clayton agreed that every restaurant has these issues, and with the Grouper, Goldman said, these things add to its charm.
“This building has some difficulties,” he said. “But you know, it’s exactly what you want for a Bourbon Street, divier restaurant.”
Nearly three years after Aspen City Council cleared the founder of Jazz Aspen Snowmass to launch a jazz performance and education center downtown, Jim Horowitz said he expects the project will get rolling before the year is over.
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