A foray in to Bridget Dunlap’s kingdom on Rainey Street / By Chad Swiatecki / Photography by Annie Ray / Makeup by Jenny Lin / Hair by Jasmine Stelly
There will come a day, likely in the next seven to 10 years, when 8-year-old Asher Skye Dunlap will bring a pretty girl home to meet his momma, Bridget Dunlap. Qualities said young lady should absolutely not possess: shyness, timidity or any of the characteristics that come with being described as “dainty.”
“God, I hope she’s none of those things,” Dunlap says. “I’d love whomever is going to love him, but I don’t see him bringing home some wallflower after me being his mother, and somewhat his father as well. I mean, you kind of go for your mom, don’t you?”
That is to say Bridget Dunlap, owner of Rainey Street bars Lustre Pearl, Clive and Bar 96, and a sort of empress of one of Austin’s hottest social districts, is in no way a shrinking violet. That wouldn’t be the way of someone who opened her first bar on a rundown Houston thoroughfare with no money of her own, but through pure gusto, intuition and hard work turned it in to a raging success in four months. And a skittish, risk-averse type wouldn’t sell that bar to come to Austin and put her stake down on four properties simultaneously in a mostly undeveloped enclave on the edge of downtown without first conducting reams of market research and income and expense analysis. All it took for Dunlap to create what is fast becoming a booming nightlife district was a gut instinct, one that she’s trusted without much second guessing for all of her 42 years.
“When I saw Rainey, I said, ‘It’s the same damn thing [as Houston],’” she says. “When I started there, it was a rundown area that used to be popular and they were re-gentrifying it with new growth and condos everywhere. There was one bar that had been a big, fat hit, but its days were numbered and there were a couple other total dives right near it. I didn’t have any money. I was teaching Pilates, so broke, a single mother waiting tables and doing that normal stuff to make some money.
“I looked at the land plat on Rainey and saw there were a couple big players and you couldn’t mess with them, so I looked around at whatever I could rent. When the crash [in 2008 and 2009] came, no one could get financing or cash, and I had cash and wasn’t doing these monumental projects. I’m just doing these little houses. It’s funny. I could not have planned this to work out the way that it has.”
Some background: A Houston native who has traveled the world in hops and skips (more on that later), Dunlap opened Lustre Pearl in a converted home at the corner of Rainey and Driskill streets in September 2009. Weathered and comfortable but sophisticated, it sits across the street from Bar 96, Dunlap’s casual take on a neighborhood sports bar, and a block away from Clive Bar, the most refined of the three (Dunlap calls it the boyfriend of Lustre Pearl).
A tough first few months, thanks to a cold, rainy winter for the mostly outdoor bar, nearly sunk her entire operation. But her luck turned the following spring, and the cars lining Rainey and the surrounding residential streets most days of the week—even during daylight hours—are evidence of the success Dunlap has found in Austin and how the area that was once staked out almost entirely for condo and retail development has set on a new course.
It’s hard to pinpoint one special quality that The little coral-blue shack that started it all. Dunlap calls the bar her alter ego, and its rugged yet inviting feel fits with that characterization. “She’s a party girl, just like me,” Dunlap teases. “I saw this beautiful little gem and worked to keep everything original that we could.”
➺ What to Order: Strawberry-Infused Moonshine with Lemonade
2 squeezed lemon wedges
1.5 ounces of strawberry-infused moonshine
sweet and sour
Fill pint glass with ice. Fill 2/3 of glass with sweet and sour, add moonshine and Sprite. Shake. Garnish with an infused strawberry.
Classy and handsome, Dunlap refers to Clive as Lustre’s boyfriend, likening him to a Kris Kristofferson type: “You see him at first and think he’s more a cowboy than someone who’s sophisticated, but he’s a gentleman,” she says. Clive features many of Dunlap’s design touches—a chandelier fashioned out of Patron bottles, for instance—that seem haphazard but totally work.
➺ What to Order: New York sour
1 1/4 ounces Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup, shaken
Serve with a float of Malbec
It’s hard to pinpoint one special quality that makes Dunlap’s watering holes such destinations, especially since they’re in a quadrant of the city where parking is a constant nightmare and there’s no big anchor attraction (think ACL Live and the bustling Second Street District) where grabbing a drink after a show or other event is a no-brainer way to end the night. In simple terms, Dunlap’s bars had to be the entire destination in order to survive. While not similarly themed or linked through obvious means, the three are all carved out of former single-family residences and have maintained a homey, welcoming atmosphere. Service is exceptional without being overbearing, drinks are affordable and well-made, and the prevailing vibe of all three is that these are places where a group of friends can congregate for however long without encountering hordes of shot guzzlers looking to get obliterated.
It’s probably not fair to call Rainey the anti- Sixth Street, but if the two were relatives at a Thanksgiving dinner, they’d be sitting at far ends of the table. That atmosphere is all Dunlap, who bought many of the furnishings for her bars before they were officially hers and who has a pretty much mandatory leap-without-looking philosophy for life.
Almost always makeup-free, she’s the sort who spent many of her younger years traveling the world—all of Europe, Vietnam, Thailand and North and South America—looking for adventures that found her living on rooftops, working under the table almost exclusively and collecting stories that would be sung in vivid tones, whether they’re told after dark over lots of shots or at high noon over Topo Chico (as for this interview).
There’s a tale she has pretty much loaded and ready to launch at the slightest urging, one of a trip to Greece that found Dunlap and a friend on the remote island of Crete. Mostly free of tourists, the pair of Americans worked for a nightclub as sort of social enhancers and would dance and appear to be having a great time so passers-by would be tempted to come in to drink and dance.
“We were supposed to be looking like we were having fun for all the tourists who were there,” she remembers. “So we’re supposed to dance and have fun, and one night, they asked us why we weren’t dancing. We said, ‘Because we’re not drunk. Where’s our vodka?’ So they’d have a bottle of Stoli in there for us every night in the refrigerator so we could get our drink on and get our groove on. At the same time, we were camping out at the bus stop to get people to come and stay at this place where we were sleeping up on the roof for free.”
The oldest of three siblings born 13 months apart, Dunlap describes her childhood in Houston as “crazy, super dysfunctional and impulsive,” with parents who fought constantly and followed that up with episodes of great bonding and joy. She says constant turmoil growing up is likely why she’s such a rebellious, brash and unapologetic free spirit, unafraid to pepper a conversation with F-bombs and other salty language when recounting her various missteps and frustrations in life and in business. The upside of such an upbringing? Living in upheaval for most of her life made her proudly tough and able to overcome obstacles whenever they got in her way.
“I’m tough,” she says. “I’ve been a tough motherf***er. I’ve had a hard life and I’m strong. You ever get that feeling where you’re at your wits’ end and you kind of want to cry or kick something, or just say, ‘F*** it’? You can’t quit! When I was trying to raise that money for the bar in Houston, it took me two years and people were telling me, ‘Just give up! Quit, Bridget.’ And I’m like, ‘For what? Am I going to teach Pilates for the rest of my life? I have nothing to lose.’ I had zero to lose, you know? And when you have zero to lose, then why would you quit? I tell my son and myself, we finish strong, dammit.”
Now thoroughly settled in Austin’s Travis Heights neighborhood, Dunlap says the city always seemed like her eventual destination, from the first time she visited and on follow-up trips as a young adult. She gives the same answers as many Austin transplants when asked why she relocated: lots to do, great people, a better atmosphere.
“I’m more Austin than Houston,” Dunlap says. “Austin’s fun. It’s pretty and there’s a lot of stuff to do. There are so many things that make me Austin, and so many things that make me Houston. The things that make me Houston are growing up there in that smoldering swamp. I have traveled throughout the world but always knew I would prefer being in Austin just because it’s more me. Houston’s lame. It’s not fun.”
After an April trip to Mexico, Dunlap recently got engaged to her boyfriend, who works in the oil industry. Dunlap is a proud single mother who’s grateful to be able to spend plenty of time with son Asher, especially after her first years as a bar owner in Houston required long hours running the entire operation herself. Her strong character in spirit and fortitude has rubbed off on the boy.
“He’s thriving. He thinks he’s 40,” she says with a laugh. “He has the same sick sense of humor I do. We’ve had such a nontraditional upbringing, both of us. It’s not nursery rhymes and baby talk, that’s for sure. It’s like baby disco at year 1.”
Dunlap’s success out of the gate has made her a prominent presence in Austin’s business community, even though she doesn’t spend her evenings at charity fundraisers or other functions that get many Austinites featured in social pages. She’s quick to offer one of her bars for fundraising events for causes she feels strongly about, and she’s on the board of the music-education charity Anthropos Arts, while also working with the Great American Teachers’ Club.
When she was approached to help raise funds for the African Children’s Choir during the group’s stop in Austin, Dunlap agreed before she even learned about the organization’s mission to help vulnerable children by teaching them through mentoring and traveling the world. Dunlap offered to host seven of the children during their stay in Austin.
“She’d never even seen us before and as soon as she was asked, she pulled together a committee of people, provided us a place and got the publicity to make it a successful event, and I don’t know of anyone who’s done anything like that for us before,” says Julie Barnett-Tracy, international choir operations director for Austin Community College, which arranged the visit. “Lots of people do well in business but don’t take the time to give back. There are also many that do, and I’d never have expected to get that kind of help from someone who never even knew us before she was asked to help.”
Dunlap prefers not to talk much about her charitable contributions, saying she prefers to stay out of the traditional social circuit and that she’d rather be working or spending time with her son instead of putting on glitzy dresses at mixers. And it needs to be said that creating a social-outpostcum-empire takes a lot of time and hard work beyond the evening hours when customers see her mingling. Most of her daylight time is spent with mundane stuff like dealing with insurance and taxes and other business musts.
She’s also hard at work on a pair of new businesses she expects to be open by the end of October. The more publicized of the two is Container Bar, an addition to the Rainey Street District that, as its name suggests, will be constructed primarily out of large, industrial shipping containers with bar furnishings and other nightlife features built in. Container Bar was announced last year and was met with a series of costly delays: A set of previously used containers Dunlap bought for the project had to be scrapped because of health concerns regarding their unknown previous contents. But as is her nature, Dunlap has pressed on and has early October targeted as the bar’s opening date.
Her success on Rainey has opened up lots of minds and checkbooks from business interests looking to take advantage of the burgeoning scene there and what are, for now, reasonably cheap rents. In the fall of 2010, Michael Icenhauer opened the upscale but open-minded Icenhauer’s down the street from Dunlap’s watering holes, and at least a half dozen more bars are in various stages of construction in an attempt to capitalize on the scene she created out of almost nothing nearly three years ago. Icenhauer says it was obvious something special was happening when he noticed people coming to Lustre Pearl from as far away as Cedar Park and Pflugerville just months after its opening, showing that the word had spread and customers will travel for quality.
“She has a strong personality and a free spirit, and that comes across in the places that she’s opened where everyone is welcome,” Icenhauer says. “She’s proven she knows what she’s doing, and I’ve joked that even though she’s done on Rainey Street once Container Bar opens, I told her I’d follow her wherever she goes next.”
There are a couple levels of what’s next for Dunlap. Besides Container Bar’s expected fall opening, she is slated to open the 4,000-square-foot restaurant Mettle later this summer at the corner of East Sixth and Calles. She’s coy about what else is on the horizon, other than that she expects to have an additional two undisclosed projects open by next summer. The smart money says her instinct will lead her in the right direction while her tough-as-shoe-leather competitive side helps her overcome any obstacles that get in her way.
“I do have some instinct, and I don’t like it when I second-guess myself,” she says. “That’s when I start to talk to myself. It’s instinctual, and you run with it. A couple times I almost drowned. It hasn’t been all roses and peaches and diamonds and topaz and unicorns. It’s been really hard. But it’s so fun when you can look back on that and laugh and say to yourself, ‘I did it.’”
The Rest of Dunlap’s Domain
An easygoing melting-pot type of a place, Bar 96 embraces sports fans by having plenty of large screens fixed on the big games of the day. Dunlap says the floor is made from a recycled basketball court, but she retracts when asked where it came from. “That’s the story for the place,” she offers. “And I’m sticking to it.” 96 Rainey St., 96austin.com
Housed in a tiny stone building that can hold 20 people at most, Bar Ilegal is a mezcal-only bar open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. “There’s supposedly a tunnel underneath it that leads to Lady Bird Lake,” Dunlap says. More myth making? Perhaps, but that’s a fun one to spread around. 609 Davis St. (behind Clive)
This project—a bar made primarily out of large, industrial shipping containers—will be Dunlap’s last on Rainey Street. “It’s going to be so different from what we’ve done with the houses, but it’ll have the same fun atmosphere,” she says. “Rainey is already a destination, but if it wasn’t, something of this magnitude will definitely make it one.” 90 Rainey St. (opening October 2012)