A Chat With Austin Entrepreneur Bridget Dunlap

By Megan Giller  |  September 25, 2013

Bridget Dunlap’s name has become synonymous with Rainey Street. The entrepreneur opened the first bar there, Lustre Pearl, several years ago and has played a pivotal role in making Rainey what it is today. But lately Dunlap has branched out into other areas of town like East Sixth Street, as well as the restaurant business, with Mettle and two upcoming restaurant projects. Plus, she wants to get into the boutique hotel business. (Hint: the much-awaited Container Bar is slated to open in November or December, and her Italian restaurant will open in September 2014.)

The native Houstonian is known for her strong personality and her identity as a single mom, but most people don’t know how truly wild she was when she was younger, as well as her intense dedication to her vision. We asked her about those days, what she saw in Rainey before it was the hot place to be, and what she has coming up next.

Zagat: What did you originally see about Rainey that other people didn’t see?

Bridget Dunlap: It’s so f*#king obvious. It’s two seconds from the freeway, and the bar I had opened in Houston was in the same dilapidated, not-taken-care-of, nasty area. I just thought it was easy. I know people think I’m cocky for saying that, but g#ddamn, it was sitting right there. Hello. It’s just funny because it’s what I had done in Houston.

Zagat: Has Rainey become what you envisioned?

BD: The area I started in Houston - started, whatever - I left before it got so busy. I think there are 98 liquor licenses on that street now, so it blew up. With Rainey, I didn't look ahead. I didn’t think ahead. I thought maybe I would just have the four bars there. I didn’t know why everyone was so ape sh*t wanting to talk to me about Rainey. But then when I tried to find some other property around Austin, I realized that there was no land. So that’s what the big deal was. At first the neighbors thought it was going to be their neighborhood bar, so they were all happy. Then as it progressed they weren’t happy anymore.

Zagat: All of your places have a specific feel to them. How does Mettle, your first restaurant, fit in?

BD: It’s different but it’s the same. When I finished Mettle, I sat in it and I thought that it didn’t feel like Austin but that it still felt really good. Mettle was a total concrete shell. I like pretty stuff, but it’s still minimalistic. I don’t want any other sh*t.

Zagat: What made you shift to the culinary scene in the city instead of opening more bars?

BD: Hello. I don’t know. Ultimately I’d like to do a boutique hotel. Maybe it’s my own craziness, but in order to gain the momentum and experience, whatever you want to call it, you have to branch out and get out of your comfort zone. Sometimes I say it’s a legitimacy thing. But half the time I don’t give a f&ck if people think I’m legitimate either way. I don’t think everything through. If I did, I wouldn’t do anything. Because it all becomes so overwhelming. It’s like planning on having a kid. That’s a lot.

Zagat: How is it going at Mettle?

BD: She’s good. Lunches are slow. But everything else is great. It’s kind of a destination over here. People think it’s far, but I don’t think it’s far. And sometimes it just takes a minute. It’s hard to be patient, but what else are you going to do?

Zagat: What are the restaurant concepts you’re working on?

BD: We’ve got a place right down the street, and we’re going to do Sicilian Italian. That will be exciting. I think I need a research trip for that one [laughs]. And Thaitanium will be Thai street food. Andrew [Francisco, the chef at Mettle] has already done the menu. It will go with Container Bar.

Zagat: You’ve focused on Rainey Street and now East Sixth Street. What other areas of town do you have your eye on?

BD: I’ve looked at a lot of neighborhoods. I don’t feel anything right now. I always say I’m not going to do anything for a minute and then it’s like, well, maybe. You get to this place and you wonder if you’re just a junkie for stressing yourself out or if it’s fun. Am I still having fun? Am I?

Zagat: Where is Lustre moving?

BD: I don’t know. I’m looking. I’ve had some offers. I know I’m weirdly protective about her, but she needs a beautiful place. I’m trying to minimize the time she’s down too. But it takes a year and a half to do something here on the super fast track.

I have her until March, the end of SXSW. And then they supposedly start construction.

Zagat: You referred to Lustre Pearl as a girl. How are your other places gendered?

BD: Mettle is definitely a girl. Clive Bar is the only male. 96 is Lustre and Clive’s love child, so she’s a girl too. Ladies are powerful. Container Bar is a lady. A lot of ladies [laughs].

Zagat: Going back to the bar, do you bartend? Have you gotten into the mixology aspect of it?

BD: I’m the worst bartender ever. Ever ever. I was a bartender in the first bar that I opened, in Houston. It started to get so packed, and people wanted Starf*$kers and Starbursts and I’m like, “I don’t do that. I can do whiskey, and I can do tequila. I can do wine and beer, vodka sodas and Jack and Coke.” I was mean too. Ladies would stiff me and I’d confront them. It’s not nice to be that aggressive [laughs].

And mixologist? I don’t drink cocktails. I like vodka and I like red wine, and that’s it. They made me a cocktail at Mettle yesterday, and they want to name it after me. But I don’t want it. No cocktails. They take too f*cking long. Places take 30 f*cking minutes and then they’re rude when they give it to you. Uh-uh.

Zagat: You have a reputation for having strong opinions and a strong personality. How do you negotiate that as a businesswoman?

BD: The best way to be is to not give a f*ck what anybody says about you or what they think about you. Because how is that going to benefit you? What I’ve learned the hard way is that there’s always someone talking sh*t. There’s someone always criticizing you and trying to take your joy. It can be really painful if you let it. You have to be yourself. I don’t let anybody get in my way. Especially since I’m a woman, they want to get in your way. They want to push you around.

One time this anonymous Eater commenter pushed me too far. I was about to be like, “Here’s my f*cking address. Let’s go.” Thankfully my husband talked me down. But it’s like, maybe you should get a job, volunteer, take a walk, get a dog.

Zagat: You mentioned your husband, and congrats on recently getting married! Did your identity as a single mom for so many years play into your being such a strong businesswoman?

BD: My son, Asher, was the catalyst for me to pull my head out of my ass. I really didn’t give a f#ck. I just wanted to party and have a good time and travel and go about my business. I wasn’t looking to get married or have children. But when I got pregnant with Asher, I thought to myself, “Your whole lifestyle has to change now. You’re not going to bring a child into this world with your irresponsible behavior.” He’s the one that grounded me. I wanted to make sure I gave him a great life. Not this crazy life that I was living.

Zagat: Did you have a business mindset when you were younger?

BD: I did. But it’s also survival of the fittest. Growing up in a really dysfunctional crazy chaotic childhood and knowing at some age that this sh*t wasn’t ok that I was growing up with. Growing up and being reckless because I wanted to and why shouldn’t I? I didn’t have a sense of responsibility. I didn’t have to do sh*t, because I didn’t want to. I went to a Catholic school for a long time, even though they kicked me out a couple of times, and I’ll have people get in touch with me from there. The funniest one was that a friend called one of the bars and said, “Did you grow up? I saw a picture of you where your hair is all blown out and you have makeup on.” [laughs] Isn’t that funny? I said, “No, they did that for the photo shoot. I’m the same.”

Zagat: What’s next for you?

BD: I’ve been looking at spaces for boutique hotels. Sometimes I want to just be happy and content and just do what I do. I’m looking in Austin for a  while, until they get sick of my ass. It’s so tiny here. But I’m from Texas, and I like Texas. There’s something crazy about it, isn’t there?