AUSTIN (KXAN) – The blighted, yet charming, abandoned building at 1200 East Sixth Street on the corner of Waller Street has undoubtedly captivated east Austinites for years.
Built by a German immigrant in 1892, the structure got its start as a saloon but has hosted a variety of tenants since the late 19th century – including European bakers, Anglo-American-born butchers, Mexican American tortilla makers and Lebanese and Mexican American bar owners – until it was left vacant in 1999, according to historical accounts. Though abandoned, vestiges of its robust history were evident in the large block letters written along the exterior of the building reading, “Uptown Sports” in faded red paint.
One person who long wondered who might pick up the baton and breathe some fresh air into the historic vacant space is Aaron Franklin, acclaimed Austin pitmaster. He has been charmed by the building for years and even eyed it initially as an option for his now-famous restaurant Franklin Barbecue, which opened in 2009, before settling on the current location about five blocks north of the historic structure.
Now, close to 150 years after the building was erected,1200 East Sixth Street has another life to add to its history, the Uptown Sports Club.
Aaron Franklin and James Moody, who oddly enough had considered the historic space for his venue – the Mohawk – in the early aughts, purchased the building in 2016. Though a slight misnomer now (there are no screens playing sports in the restaurant ), the owners kept the name as an ode to its colorful past. Four weeks into the operation, Franklin said the Uptown Sports Club is off to a great start.
“It’s been a heck of a lot of fun,” Franklin said. “I just want to work hard and make it as good as we want it. But it’s really been fun. We’ve got such an awesome team here. Everybody clicks so well, and everyone’s got their individual talents,” he continued. “We all make a really nice cohesive package.”
Franklin said he’s been enamored with the building for years. He said transforming the space into the current restaurant wasn’t the intention at first.
“Me and a bunch of friends kind of just pitched in to save an old building. And really, you know, we never started off trying to open a restaurant or anything necessarily. Like, I’ve got Franklin Barbecue. Like, that’s plenty. It’s plenty,” he said with a laugh.
“But in the process, once we got in here, we kind of realized that this building has such a cool energy to it,” Franklin said. “It felt kind of like New Orleans – an eat all day kind of cafe stuff, [where you] show up early, drink your espresso, go to work; come back for lunch [and] grab a tea; come back later for a meeting, have a cocktail and just kind of stay late,” he said.
Further to the energy of the building, Franklin and Moody both have roots in Louisiana. Moody is from New Orleans, while much of Franklin’s family once lived in southern Louisiana.
Their ties to the southern state and the feel of the venue are what inspired the menu, which Franklin has dubbed a “Texas, creole, brasserie” combination of sorts. There are four sandwiches – one made with fried gulf shrimp, another with tender roast beef, a fried green tomatoes vegetarian option and their take on a classic club.
Franklin said the roast beef sandwich is a “hyped up” version of the pot roast his grandfather taught him to make as a kid.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the menu is their gumbo, which Franklin said is his “liquid brisket.”
“I’ve spent so many years working on just one silly piece of meat called brisket,” he said. “The other thing that I’ve been working on for years is gumbo,” he continued. “[Brisket] is just a real slow food – painfully slow, it takes so long…It also takes a really long time to make gumbo, and I find that kind of appealing because you can taste the layers – you can taste the love in there.”
The menu also features a seafood raw bar, cajun-inspired sides and an extensive selection of beers, wines and cocktails.
The Texas Historic Commission determined the building at 1200 East Sixth Street met the eligibility requirements to be registered as a historic place in the National Register of Historic Places in 2022. This designation means it is unlikely that the building will ever be dozed, which is good news for Franklin, who said he and his team are playing the long game.
“We hope this place will be around forever. What we want out of this place is for it to be like a cool little neighborhood spot… to feel really lived in and just comfortable. And no matter who shows up, when [they] show up, for it to always just feel like home,” Franklin said.