Aurum Food and Wine pays homage to old Steamboat Yacht Club
May 5, 2016
Steamboat Springs — In the 1980s and ’90s, the Steamboat Yacht Club was the place to be.
"For a long period of time, a seat at the Yacht Club was a prize on a summer afternoon, there's no question about that," said Ben Stoock, who worked at the Steamboat Yacht Club for more than four years and is now the chef and owner of Drunken Onion. "But it wasn't just the spot; it was the whole package."
It was sought after by celebrities such as Bill Murray, Neil Young, Michael Keaton and Paul Simon, and reservations were made up to a year in advance, especially for Winter Carnival.
"In the summertime, on a beautiful afternoon, it had this swirling energy to it," Stoock said. "Oh, and the Crab and Corona nights, those were pretty wild in just how many people would be sitting there enjoying the evening. It was impressive."
"You saw everybody back then, all the time," added Kim Peter, who worked at the Steamboat Yacht Club for 10 years. "I've lived here for 27 years, and you just don't see people like that anymore."
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But now, things may be changing.
Beginning June 3, the 811 Yampa St. building, known today as Aurum Food & Wine, will be opening a new space and featuring throwback menu items to pay homage to the old Steamboat Yacht Club and its previous owners, Dick and Paulette Mills.
"I think the Yacht Club has a very special place in the heart of a lot of locals," said current Aurum owner Phil Armstrong. "So when we were thinking about what to do with the space, we thought, why not the Yacht Club, as a great way to honor all those years that this was such a great restaurant and to honor Dick and Paulette?”
But what was at the core of this quintessential Steamboat restaurant that made it so successful?
"Maybe we were lucky, I don't know, but we had the most incredible staff," said Dick Mills. "They were like a family to us."
"They were the people in town," added Paulette Mills. "We found them and kept them, some, as long as 10 years. You know, that never really happens now."
Showing photos from five boxes of archived material, Paulette Mills shared stories about her Greenhouse, the old fence and the new iron one, the classic diving helmet that stood guard outside for 20 years and the employees who gave the restaurant its character.
Prior to serving as a popular restaurant, the stone house property was a fish hatchery, which was built in 1920 and produced more than 2 million fish per year for 20 years, according to historic records from the city of Steamboat Springs. It closed in 1942 and became the Routt County Rifle Club's indoor shooting range until 1984.
Purchasing the building from founder Alan Barbee in the summer of 1988, the Mills ran the Yacht Club for 11 years and owned the property for 19 years. They sold the business to Morten and Ellen Hoj in 1999, who, in turn, sold the property in 2008. In 2010, Kim Haggarty opened Sweetwater Grill in the building, a business that became Aurum Food & Wine in 2014.
"We wanted it to be a place where people wanted to be," Paulette Mills said. "It took us two years to build up our reputation where we became one of the places to be if you came to Steamboat, and that was what we both wanted."
Dick Mills said they were one of the first restaurants in town that was busier in the summer than the winter and also one of the first to offer a large deck for outdoor seating. He recalled a record day one Fourth of July, when they served 468 lunches and 478 dinners, generating about $14,000 in sales.
"We were always two different restaurants," Dick Mills said. "During the winter, it was white table cloths and fine dining; then, in the summer, it was the crowd who wanted to sit out on the deck."
Armstrong, too, has found this to be true, even today.
In the new space, which will offer a casual atmosphere, Armstrong said memorabilia from the Mills — such as old brochures, menus, pictures and artwork — will be showcased, along with throwback menu items, including the Crab and Corona specials.
"Naming it the Yacht Club and having some of this memorabilia are subtle but very strong reminders of what they did," Armstrong said. "And I think that resonates with people. It's just a matter of doing the building justice.”