Visionaries are the ones who look at what’s in front of all of our faces, and have just enough careless abhorrence of common sense to imagine a metropolis where the rest of us see only a mound of dirt.
Successful Houston business owner Bridget Dunlap had visited Austin many times. Despite the economic bust of 2008, she was looking for opportunity when she parked in the dirt lot on the north side of Driskill St. near I-35.
The parcel of land on the northeast corner of Rainey Street at Driskill – now known as Lustre Pearl – was for lease. Signs communicated that the property was condemned, and the former home was completely boarded up. “You could barely walk up the stairs,” Dunlap recalled.
Risk and Reward
Instead of being scared away, Dunlap saw potential. “I was super cocky. I said ‘I’ll take it.’ [From the property] I could see the Four Seasons [Residences] being built. I could see the Frost Building. It was a no-brainer.”
April 2009, Lustre Pearl opened for business, trail-blazing a path for the successful nightlife district of Rainey Street. Months later in October, Dunlap opened Clive down the street.
Running multiple locations so close to one another nearly proved to be Dunlap’s downfall:
“Cannibalization came in. The same people started to split between two spots. We had half the people and double the cost…It got really awful for a couple of months.”
Dunlap pushed forward and regained her momentum, opening Bar 96 across the street from Lustre Pearl.
“There’s so much that comes with it that’s not glamorous,” she included. “It pays off to be diplomatic and patient.” Taking a breath to sum up her thoughts, she transparently admitted, “I’m still young at 40. But I’m not dumb.”
Bars With Lives of Their Own
Upon first meeting her, Dunlap is an enigma. Her imagination mixes with her grit and determination.
Her imagination is clearly shown when she explains the monikers of her bars. The name for Dunlap’s first Rainey St. bar wasn’t chosen accidentally. “I’ve been ‘Lustre Pearl’ since I was 17. It’s my alter-ego. I used to give boys that name instead of my real one.”
“Clive” was always Lustre Pearl’s boyfriend – with a persona like Kris Kristofferson. And Dunlap refers to her third Rainey St. bar – Bar 96 – as “Clive and Lustre’s love child.”
But describing Dunlap as imaginative is hardly the whole story. This woman has a surprisingly firm handshake. She prefers to go without shoes, and she doesn’t like to smile in photographs. Her company is enjoyable and even inspiring, but you know a shark is lurking beneath the surface.
Could Dunlap Lose Everything She’s Built on Rainey?
During our time together, Dunlap shared news that isn’t widely known. Houston developers have purchased the Rainey St. land and are planning to build condos in the area. With an air of resignation, Dunlap stated, “You can’t stop what was coming before I got here.” Put on hold due to the recession, Dunlap states that Rainey St. development is one and a half to two years away.
Buying Lustre Pearl at $1.2 million was not a possibility for Dunlap. That figure does not even cover the property beyond Lustre Pearl’s back deck. Looking around at her namesake, Dunlap quietly told us, “I’m prepared to lose her.” (Editor’s Note: Lustre Pearl closed on March 30, 2014 to make way for a condo building.)
Despite the imminent development, Dunlap is moving ahead with her fourth Rainey St. bar: Container Bar. “I’ve come this far with Container that it doesn’t make sense to turn back.” You can expect to make your first visit in April of this year.
Beyond Container Bar, four other projects are in the works.
Ophelia Blue will be a restaurant/bar. Not surprisingly, there’s special purpose behind this spot’s name. “Ophelia Blue was what my son’s name was going to be.” Not deterred by the birth of a son rather than a daughter nine years ago, Dunlap decided that she would find something else to call Ophelia Blue. And so she has.
The opening of eastside restaurant Mettle has been a year-long process so far. Dunlap told us that she doesn’t have any more fun names, but she thinks that Mettle properly describes what she’s about.
“Mettle is about strength and fortitude, and getting it tested. I think it’s about not only my upbringing, but coming into this business and being a woman, a single mother, broke and ballsy, mouthy. With all of that stuff there are repercussions…your mettle gets bigger, but it’s also tested regularly.”
Mettle will be located where E 6th Street dead-ends into Calles St.
Two Mystery Projects
Looking into the future, Dunlap has two other projects on the table. She doesn’t have names yet, nor does she have full concepts. But she has chosen the locations. “I saw them. I picked them out. I like them.”
Single-Handedly Making Magic
Not everyone can make waves like Bridget Dunlap. She doesn’t take success as an opportunity to rest, but she continues to plan for what’s next.
If you’ve been to any of her local businesses, you’ll be excited to see what she has coming for us. After all, she readily admits, “I don’t like bland or boring or zero fun.”
Which Rainey St. spot is your favorite and why?
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