Even if I really try and focus, it’s real hard — darn near impossible — to remember anything about the area known as Rainey Street Historic District, that is before Lustre Pearl, Clive and Bar 96 took up residence. A quasi-dilapidated corner of downtown Austin just a few years ago, Rainey Street transformed into one of Austin's newest and most favorite places to hang out. You want to know the name of someone who’s done a ton to shape the look of Austin? Meet Bridget Dunlap, bar owner and businesswoman.
I showed up at Clive Bar only two minutes before my scheduled interview, sweaty and a little harried; I didn’t think that at 3pm on a Wednesday the used-to-be-sleepy neighborhood would be packed, but it was. She hadn’t arrived yet, and a friendly (before he even knew I was a reporter) bartender offered me a seat and a glass of water.
I like clean bathrooms. I like good music. I like good service. I don’t like bartenders who treat you like shit. What you see is what you get from me.
A few minutes later, a woman breezed in, opening the door with a no-nonsense push and a confident stride. She wore a feminine, flowing dress and an oversized camel-brown leather belt. Her hair pulled back unceremoniously; her face make-up free. She looked exactly as she seems in the interviews I had read before: take-no-prisoners, don’t-give-a-damn, knows-what-she-wants.
For those of you yet to wander to this far flung part of south downtown — snuggled comfortably between the interstate and an IHOP, a mere stone’s throw away from the Austin Convention Center — you should know these bars look unlike anything in Austin. The first, Lustre Pearl, features a tiny, old house situated on a big, fenced-in lot full of seating, hula hoops, ping pong and good lighting. Plaster and drywall peek out from paint that’s left peeling. Furnishings are sparse but stylish. Highlighted architectural details make you feel instantly comfortable. A stately, delicate sort of femininity floats around the space in subtle details.
Clive Bar was next, and in Bridget’s words was the male counterpart to Lustre Pearl. Where Lustre Pearl might represent Bridget — simultaneously formidable and feminine, comforting but in charge — Clive is manly. Set in another old house, dark, exposed wood wraps the walls and the ceiling is lofty. Designed-by-Bridget iron chandeliers made from her old Patron tequila bottle collection glint in the light. The seating, stark white and shapely, comes straight from the old Peacock Lounge. Bar 96 is like a modern love child of the two parent bars, combining old architectural details with masculine elements and a stark, bold modern exterior paint job that puts a final touch on the whole area.
These spaces are stunning. But if the sight of them makes your jaw drop, then knowing that Bridget designed nearly all of it without even a hint of interior design in her background might downright make you mad.
Hearing her speak about her design process, you realize she approaches filling out spaces the same way she tackles life: casually, authentically, with a lot of guts and without an ounce of fear. She doesn’t plan out design boards or pull out magazine pages for inspiration; she combines mad natural skills with a knack for finding amazing deals on furnishings to pull off these interior masterpieces quickly: Lustre Pearl was finished in only eight weeks and Clive in twelve.
Her artistic eye, combined with years of working in the restaurant and bar industry, mixes to create spaces that are inviting and authentic. And of course, being a bit gutsy adds a lot personality: she admits she’s in the habit of buying elements for her bars before she even has a space to put them in yet.
“Maybe it’s getting a piece or two and then incorporating everything else you have? For whatever sense that makes…maybe it doesn’t and maybe that’s why it works,” Bridget suggests as a secret to her design method.
Do I even have to write a paragraph about how successful her businesses have become? And how quickly? Here's Bridget talking about why she thinks her bars have done so well:
“I like aesthetics. I like clean bathrooms. I like good music. I like good service. I don’t like bartenders who treat you like shit. What you see is what you get from me. I don’t really dress up. I like an environment where I can go in my cut-off shorts…in my summer dress, and if I am wearing my hooker heels, I can go and feel comfortable. That it’s a place for everybody. Everybody. Everybody that’s gonna behave well.”
Her personality, like her bars, is a perfect mix of brash and lovely, rugged and smooth-around-corners. Her take-charge attitude is refreshing, but not harsh — Bridget doesn’t lack in friends or admirers. And while it does take a certain amount of control to pull off these sorts of projects, she’s not one to turn down a good opinion; in fact she works closely with two talented friends, Jeff and Marcia Poss, who serve as not only craftspeople and consultants but also sounding boards for ideas.
And it's a good thing she's got talented friends: Up next for Bridget and Rainey Street might be her most ambitious project to date, the Container Bar. While many homeowners have embraced the shipping container as a legitimate building material, few in the nation, and no one in Austin, have taken on such a grand undertaking as Container Bar will be. Comprised of multiple shipping containers, they’ll stack and angle to create a courtyard. Each box will be a different décor, and the bar will sport a movie screen and stage. Working with Jeff Poss and architect Jay Knowles, Bridget will definitely bring her signature style to this place, melding it with ultra modern architecture.
If the container bar sounds ambitious, it is. Bridget’s a fearless trailblazer. She suggets that many others have had great ideas like this, but dared not attempt it because of how much work it’ll take to get off the ground. Construction is slated to start soon-ish, and a hard deadline of January 2012 is set for its opening. Bridget repeated several times during the interview that she’s going to finish it because she promised she would.
“I said I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it. Sometimes I don’t know how it’s going to get done, but I’m not worried about it. I’m just gonna do it. I think if you sit and contemplate too long…it’s like planning on having a baby. Who would do any of that stuff…it’s too overwhelming or the risk is too big. Fuck it. Let’s go," Bridget says.
I realize at this point that Bridget Dunlap is the kind of woman I’ve always wanted to be.
Alas, for Austin bar hoppers, Container Bar will be Bridget’s last venture on Rainey Street, and likely the last for Austin. Asked what she planned next, she had several lofty and totally-achievable-by-her options, like perhaps traveling the world as a bar and restaurant consultant.
“I’ll be moving forward. Moving off Rainey Street. I have no desire to go anywhere in Austin after this. I want bigger and better. Not better — I love this street and I really love Austin and was fortunate to move here. I just want new challenges. Bigger, you know? Bring it on,” Bridget says.
And though I didn’t ask for her secrets to life and success, she left me with a few tips as to why she’s done so well for herself:
- She does what she says she’s going to do.
- She doesn’t let anyone or anything get in her way.
- She doesn’t apologize.
No apology necessary, Bridget. Thanks for giving Austin an entirely new and unique bar district.
Now's your chance: tell us what you really think about the work Bridget's done for bars on Rainey Street. Love it? Hate it? Will you visit the new Container Bar when it opens?