Speakeasies tend to latch on to the creepy and salacious. During the course of my speakeasy series, I’ve visited horror film-themed bars, heard multiple stories of ghosts haunting the premises, and learned that brothels existed in the heart of Austin not long ago. When I found out Austin’s newest speakeasy is named after J. Stephens, who came to his end in the late 1920s via suicide, due to drinking the equivalent of Lysol, it felt rather on-brand.
But let’s take a step back. As with most speakeasies, the first step is finding it.
Back Alley Entrance
J. Stephens is located at 214 E. Sixth Street, but you’ll have trouble finding a way in if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The entrance is in the alley behind Happy Chicks, just north of Dirty Sixth Street. Opened in August 2019, the space that became J. Stephens was previously used for storage.
I met with Mark Yawn, currently the only full-time bartender on staff, to hear about the vision for this Austin speakeasy. Yawn, who has worked at restaurants in the past, “Wanted to bring the culinary aspect into a bar, but make it a party.”
J. Stephens Throne
I could certainly see this speakeasy holding a party. As I wait to order my drink at 5 p.m., the DJ is already bumping ’90s hip hop. To the right of the bar sits J. Stephens’ throne. The rest of the room is colored red. Sexy, but weird. As the evening progresses, the lights go down and the music goes up.
This bar is small and intimate, meaning that sometimes, during peak hours, there’s a line to get in. A few notes here:
- There’s a line for a reason. J. Stephens is already known as one of the best late night dance parties downtown.
- The doorman is full of riddles. So if you’re into that sort of thing, the wait could be quite entertaining.
- You are surrounded by speakeasies. If you want to sneak away, then come back to see if the line has gone down, try Here Nor There, Firehouse Lounge, or Midnight Cowboy.
Food and Drink
If the drink names on the menu seem a bit fortuitous, that’s intentional. They’re a tribute to the story of our dearly departed friend, J. Stephens. The story goes that Mr. Stephens, a bookkeeper in the furniture/home goods/mixed-use shop that occupied this space in the 1920s, started embezzling money. A lot of money.
When he was caught, in an effort to save his family from embarrassment, he committed suicide by the aforementioned Lysol equivalent.
Suddenly, these drink names make a bit more sense: Cash Is King, Greed Is Good, Embezzlement, and the story-ending Sweet Release. “As a speakeasy, it’s kind of fun to play off of a morbid story,” Yawn explained.
On my visit, I started with Sweet Release. This cocktail includes vodka, Smith and Cross Rum, citrus and bitters, and it’s topped with thyme and a lit blackberry shrub. I learned the aroma caused by the burning opens the pallet to increased flavor. Your taste buds become ready to receive the flavor. This drink is sweet, boozy, and delicious.
I followed up with the Kansas City Shuffle. As it happened, this drink also included an aromatic experience. The drink was balanced and dry, and left me buzzing. Yawn knows how to make a drink! You’d expect nothing less from a veteran of Midnight Cowboy.
J. Stephens offers food to go with the drinks, and you can’t go wrong. Pork belly bites, queso-infused meatballs, and wagyu beef sliders are a few of the most popular options.
Returning to Dirty Sixth
“I’ve enjoyed retaking Dirty Sixth,” Yawn told me. He explained what he meant. Years ago, bars began focusing on east and west of Dirty Sixth. East and West Sixth Streets exploded with new cocktail bars, and Dirty Sixth suddenly wasn’t the place to be. But slowly, the cocktail bars have come back, by way of speakeasies.
“Midnight Cowboy is the OG; they got it going,” Yawn said. And now J. Stephens is continuing the push by moving back to Dirty Sixth, and honoring Austin’s recent history, as well as the story of a more distant, tragic fellow. Poor J. Stephens’ loss was our gain.
214 E. Sixth Street — Instagram
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