By Amanda Rogers
Mansfield’s favorite hangout has closed.
Steven’s Garden & Grill announced its closing on social media last week, bringing an end to 22 years of barbecue, margaritas, live music and fun.
“It was not an easy decision,” admitted Jan Cox, who owns the restaurant with her husband, John. “This was not an easy thing to do.”
The closing came abruptly, just a few days after the restaurant announced that it would be closed for the holidays.
The property has not sold, Jan Cox said. They haven’t decided yet what they plan to do with the property, but are looking at leasing or selling. They are in no hurry, she said.
“If we said we were closing in a week or a month, I think it would have hurt our hearts,” Cox said. “We had been talking about retiring to Huntsville when (son) Sterling graduated from high school. Things fell into place. I had an opportunity in Huntsville and John decided that’s what he wanted to do, too.”
The couple bought the property at 223 Depot St. in the 1990s, across the street from the Mansfield Feed Mill, which John Cox’s father had owned for years before selling to Cox’s younger brother, Reggie. They stored the mowers for their landscaping company on the site, before constructing the main building in 1995 for their offices and office space to lease.
Despite running a restaurant for more than two decades, Jan and John Cox had almost no experience in the business. They’re plant people. Jan Cox has a master’s degree in horticulture, while John has a bachelor’s degree in agronomy. They opened a retail garden center on the property, specializing in perennials and native plants.
In 2001, John Cox decided he wanted to open a sandwich shop, so they scaled back the garden center and opened a small restaurant, starting with burgers and barbecue.
“You could go on one side and get a sandwich and the other side and get fertilizer,” Jan Cox recalled.
The restaurant opened Sept. 21, 2001, just days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C.
“The restaurant industry took a huge hit,” Jan Cox said. “It was kind of scary to be opening a restaurant then.”
By 2002, the couple had phased out the garden center and focused on the restaurant.
“I was the only waitress,” said Jan Cox, who admitted she was a reluctant server. “I told John, ‘I feed plants, not people.’ We took all of our landscape crew and made cooks out of them.”
Her husband learned to grill and cook from his parents, both excellent cooks, Jan Cox said.
“Cooking for people and entertaining people, that’s what he loves,” she said.
Steven’s Garden & Grill continued to expand, enlarging the kitchen, dining area, a patio, a bigger patio and a pavilion for live music.
Local groups and Texas legends have played at Steven’s, including Ray Wylie Hubbard, Rusty Wier, Hal Ketchum, Tony Furtado, Tommy Alverson, Terri Hendrix, Lloyd Maines and Ruthie Foster.
The restaurant has hosted family reunions, weddings and gave birth to the World’s Only St. Paddy’s Pickle Parade, where the Pickle Queens were formed, including one of the original Pickle Queens and organizers Jan Cox.
The heart of the restaurant has always been the food, the brisket, the fish tacos and mouth-watering burgers. For years, Steven’s didn’t do any fried food, but finally relented a few years ago and added some fried specialties during the last kitchen expansion.
One of the most notorious draws, though, was John’s margaritas. Cox would vary the flavors, depending on the season, offering watermelon or peach, but always the original – which became a Mansfield favorite.
“Margaritas always gave me heartburn,” Jan Cox said. “John and one of his friends would stay after closing time and they developed this recipe that didn’t give me heartburn. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
The secret, she says, is that they don’t use a commercial mix, just fresh ingredients, which include tequila, three orange liqueurs, fresh lime juice and syrup made with simple sugar.
The restaurant took the COVID pandemic in stride, Jan Cox said.
“We did quite well because we had the outdoor patios,” she said. “We spread people out. We were able to sell margaritas by the gallon. The TABC (Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission) changed the laws to start allowing you to sell that stuff to go.”
The couple raised their two sons, Miller and Sterling, in the restaurant. Miller was 6 years old when the family opened the restaurant, while Jan Cox was waiting tables until 10 days before Sterling was born. Both boys and a lot of their friends have worked at Steven’s.
“It’s a tough business,” Jan Cox said. “You’ve got to be there all the time. Most restaurants close in the first three to five years. For us, not making it was not an option.”
But now it’s time to say goodbye.
“It’s been fun,” Jan Cox said. “We truly enjoyed meeting so many new people and serving them.”
Mansfield, Texas, is a booming city, nestled between Fort Worth and Dallas, but with a personality all its own. The city’s 76,247 citizens enjoy an award-winning school district, vibrant economy, historic downtown, prize-winning park system and community focus spread across 37 square miles. The Mansfield Record is dedicated to reporting city and school news, community happenings, police and fire news, business, food and restaurants, parks and recreation, library, historical archives and special events. The city’s only online newspaper launched in September 2020 and will offer introductory advertising rates for the first three months at three different rates.