Run Away and Join the Circus — If Only For a Drink — at this Houston Bar Pop-Up
What if Willy Wonka suddenly decided candy was no longer the end game? Two longtime friends, Ben Mowbray and Robert Mungle, are combining the former’s experience as a bartender and professional comedian, and the latter’s as a cook, to create Saint Julian’s Social Club, a fun, circus-themed bar located at 1617 Richmond. They’re creating candy-infused drinks, and doing so with substance and style.
The owners of Saint Julian’s have been researching and playing with the idea of opening a bar for a few years, using the pop-up as an opportunity to build interest and further develop the idea. Mowbray is a comedian and podcast host who recently celebrated his 20th anniversary in bartending. He has worked at a diverse array of several well-known Houston establishments from dives to full restaurants including Grand Prize Bar, Goro and Gun, Moving Sidewalk, Houston Watch Company, Downhouse and Toasted Coconut.
Mungle, also a comedian (and voice actor), has worked as the chef for Red Dwarf and Outlaw Dave’s Motorcycle Bar. Aside from the ring leaders, there is also a diverse supporting cast that includes a professional make-up artist/clown, a contortionist who spends as much time walking on her hands as her feet, a close-up magic specialist and another charismatic local comedian.
The Movie Butter Popcorn is a popular drink, as well as personal favorite at Saint Julian’s Social Club. Photo by Ryan Baker.
The bar is a pop-up concept that is running from now through Halloween night. Situated between Nonna’s Family Pizza Tavern and The Toasted Coconut, the space was previously home to the short-lived speakeasy and restaurant Quiote. Saint Julian’s features a 14-seat bar, standing room for more than 20 and walls that are now completely adorned with photos, offbeat paintings, circus memorabilia and a shrine commemorating Saint Julian, “the patron saint of circuses, hotel owners and murderers.” Red lights overhead create an illusion of being under the big top. In the spirit of tiki bars, the idea is for the decorations to perpetually evolve. Guests can win prizes by playing one of the two carnival games: spinning a massive prize wheel or dropping tokens into a Plinko board. Spinning the wheel instantly energizes the room, and the entire house cheers each turn. Each play costs $5, and prizes include a Fistful of Candy, a grab bag (more candy, but also toys, party favors or other novelties) or even a cocktail of your choice from the menu (and we all love $5 cocktails, right)?
Mowbray’s intent when developing the menu is to put fun first and fully adhere to the bar’s theme. Most of the drinks are created featuring housemade, candy-infused spirits, with favorites including Tootsie Roll vodka, sour gumball gin and Skittles tequila. Fortunately, Mowbray’s longtime experience as a Houston bartender at establishments such as Moving Sidewalk and more recently, Grand Prize Bar, has given him the perfect skillset to balance the crazy with flavor. Surprisingly, despite the candy infusions, the drinks are balanced and not overly sweet like you might expect.
Saint Julian’s most popular drink, the Movie Butter Popcorn Cooler, is also a personal favorite. Made from buttered popcorn jelly bean-infused vodka, sparkling wine and a candy garnish, the beverage offers a silky texture and vibrant yellow color. Peep Show, a blended concoction, is another popular drink that utilizes mezcal to hit the more savory side of the spectrum while still using candy in the form of circus peanut syrup.
For those who prefer stirred, boozy cocktails, the Cookie Monster is made of blackstrap rum, Averna and a top-secret cookie syrup designed by Tulu Kafeles, resulting in a spiced-cookie-flavored spin on a Black Manhattan. FAFO The Clown (the acronym is short for F*** Around And Find Out) has no menu description as it’s Mowbray’s random drink creation of the day. People who wish to enjoy more traditional cocktails aren’t left out thanks to a brief list of classics, and there are also a few beer options. The uncommon, candy-infused ingredients on the menu can initially be difficult to navigate, but the staff is great at playing the part of tour guide and helping guests figure out which drinks will best suit their tastes.
With the lack of overhead vents, Mungle’s task of creating a food menu had some obstacles. He has still managed to create a small but enjoyable selection that includes Pineapple Beef Chili Pie, a grilled cheese with a cup of his award-winning chili, and various stuffed French toast options such as Oreo cookie and peanut butter and jelly. In addition to making the entire room smell amazing when he’s cooking, he also has the task of telling a short biography of Saint Julian every hour or so.
Twice a week, Saint Julian’s also lets guest bartenders run the circus and design their own candy-inspired drinks. Guest star appearances include notable acts such as Sabrina Poe (Rosewater), Daniel Rocha (Gristworks), Matulu Kafeles (Moving Sidewalk), Sarah Ip (Double Trouble Caffeine & Cocktails) and Pricilla Gonzalez (Bludorn).
According to Mowbray, creating a fully immersive atmosphere and cocktail list comes second to creating a bar where everyone feels welcome. As a regular, it appears that he is succeeding in that. Every week sees the return of numerous first-time visitors from the previous week, as well as a slew of industry professionals who have made Saint Julian’s a new hangout. It has become a (slightly unhinged) Cheers.
Are you down to clown? If so, remember the pop-up’s final day is on Halloween. Saint Julian’s Social Club is open Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 6 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to midnight.