The Force Behind Rainey's Renaissance
Bridget Dunlap is the one-woman army who changed the face of an Austin neighborhood
A couple of years ago, most people in Austin hadn't even heard of Rainey Street. Today, this once-forgotten neighborhood is the fastest growing entertainment district in town, thanks to the spearheading efforts of Bridget Dunlap. A Houston native with a can-do attitude who marches to the beat of her own drum, Dunlap held jobs as a waitress, Pilates instructor, and technical writer before becoming a bar entrepreneur. She first entertained the notion after helping a friend develop a business plan for a bar. Within a couple of years she opened Pearl Bar in Houston, and after its resounding success, she was hooked. During a visit to Austin, a spark went off, and in typical Bridget Dunlap style, she purchased the four properties that would become her mini-empire all on the same day. She sold Pearl Bar in 2009 and moved to Austin to begin remodeling the dilapidated house she had fallen in love with at the corner of Rainey and Driskill. "I saw the peeling blue paint and I envisioned the whole concept right there and then," she says of Lustre Pearl, the bar she named after her "alter ego." Foregoing the use of big-name architects and designers to overhaul the property, Dunlap chose to respect the building by leaving it nearly intact, adding only structural renovations. Like Dunlap herself, Lustre Pearl is casual, laid-back and fuss-free, a place with the ambience of a backyard party, where the most complex cocktail is moonshine-spiked lemonade. The design and decor are almost 100% hers.
To manage the bar she needed someone she could trust completely, so she hired longtime friend Scranton Twohey – another Houston transplant with ample background in hospitality and a résumé that included bartending stints at Shoal Creek Saloon (volume) and Uchi (finesse). Twohey is now director of operations for all the bars in what they call the "Dunlap District," including Lustre Pearl, Clive Bar, and Bar 96 – their version of a sports bar. Clive is the fanciest of the three, with dark wood, dim lighting, leather seats, and specialty cocktails. And although Dunlap's bars are hip, one thing you will not find is hipster-style service. "That's not my style and it will never be," she says. "I hate places where you try to get a drink and the bartender blows you off because she's texting someone or talking to a friend. I can't stand that shit. You do that at my bar and you're fired." The same goes for her clientele. As she puts it, "everybody is welcome, as long as they behave nicely."
In September 2011, Dunlap and Twohey turned an old stone shed in Clive Bar's backyard into Bar Illegal, a miniature candle-lit space with capacity for 20 or so, serving only mezcal and Mexican beer. The design features repurposed materials including the eight-foot bar made from a hand-hewn pecan plank – cut from a tree that once stood on the property – and a liquor shelf fashioned from old fence pickets. Dunlap embraces a philosophy of sustainability and responsible building; however, she found out the hard way that it's not easy being green.
Dunlap had planned to open Container Bar, built entirely from recycled shipping containers, in 2011. However, the project was put on hold as Dunlap navigated the obstacle course of city permits. "It's a struggle being green," she says. "The city did not allow me to use the recycled containers because they had concerns about what could have been inside them. So everything turned to shit. I've learned a lot: you can do everything in your power and it still doesn't matter, but you can't lose your marbles. And you have to hope you can keep funding your project while they fuck you over and over. In the end, I had to buy new containers. But now we're on!" Construction is scheduled to begin soon on the lot directly across the street from Clive, and Dunlap hopes to open in August. Meanwhile, another project is on the way – this time a casual restaurant called Mettle, also set to open in August, at 507 Calles, in the development that houses Hops & Grain Brewery. As far as Rainey Street goes, Dunlap is done. "I once contemplated dominating the street," she says with a chuckle, "but after Container Bar opens, I am moving on."