One night while backpacking in Crete, Bridget Dunlap and a traveling companion were so tired, they simply collapsed on the ferry landing. The next morning, they were awakened by a disturbed man with blood all over his hands and under his fingernails.
"I thought I was invincible," she admits of her youthful audacity. "But I should have died several times."
Dunlap, fearless mistress of Rainey Street's bar scene, remains mesmerized by risk. Yet the gambles are now more calculated. After all, the 42-year-old Houston native is raising a young son while calling the shots at three popular Austin watering holes and, within weeks, another bar, along with an East Austin eatery.
"I still try to have adventures," she says. "But it's different. I had lived my whole life to be as irresponsible as possible, to party as hard as possible and have as much fun as possible."
Aside from a prominent butterfly tattoo and a certain steeliness underneath her disarming glamour, Dunlap bears few marks of hard living. Irish and Swedish ancestry are emblazoned across the former tomboy's smooth features, inquisitive hazel eyes and tousled reddish hair.
Growing up in the Southside Place and Southampton areas near Rice University, Dunlap attended St. Vincent de Paul Private Catholic School (about 15 years after I did), then Lamar High School. That's where conventional youth ended.
"I tried a couple of colleges," she says, matter-of-factly. "But it didn't work." Instead, Dunlap traveled the world, hitchhiking, working illegally, learning about cultures, business, currency.
"I've had it in my blood forever," she says of the insistent wanderlust. "And I come from the most rigid set of circumstances."
Because Dunlap had already demonstrated certain job skills, her dad had hoped for business school. It was not in the stars.
"It was such a world of discovery," she says about her peregrinations between 1986 and 1993. "I always knew there was something bigger and better out there."
In Houston between jaunts, Dunlap replenished her resources by working at lively spots such as Goode Company Seafood just as that city was kicking into culinary and nightlife high gear.
She embarked on an adventure of another sort nine years ago, bearing a son whose race helped estrange her from an already distant family. To supplement her income, she became certified as a Pilates trainer and took up technical writing. She continued to tend bar and wait tables while living in a converted warehouse. Then a friend requested help with a business plan for a proposed bar.
"Why am I doing this for somebody else?" she thought. "I'll do it myself."
The result was the pioneering Pearl bar on Washington Avenue, a decaying area west of downtown Houston already undergoing radical rebirth. Pearl attracted an assortment of hipsters, neighbors and business types skipping the city's rush hour(s). In fact, the place hopped from early afternoon to late at night.
"I have this strategy of ‘come as you are — dressed up or flip flops,' " she says. "I think that attracts people. Regardless of what they are doing, they are ready to be there."
In 2009, she applied the same social philosophy to her first Austin bar, the shabby chic Lustre Pearl on Rainey Street. (She sold the original Pearl after a year and a half.)
"In all my places there's a melting pot," she says. "There's a little bit of everybody. I love a little bit of everybody."
Rainey had long been poised for changes. The opening of the handsome Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center and the rise of nearby residential towers meant that the few remaining modest wooden houses — which some residents hoped to preserve — would eventually give way to the increasingly dense downtown around it.
"I didn't know the political aspect of the 20 years of petitions and so forth," she says. "I'm grateful for my naiveté. I saw a street that was like Washington and I thought I could do it again."
The corner bungalow that houses Lustre Pearl was slated for demolition. While adding a bar and a funky outdoor patio, she didn't make huge changes in its basic look. It fit.
"I let the building be the building," she says. "She's so damn cute. Lustre is my alter ego. My bars are all girls, except for Clive."
After the roaring success of Lustre Pearl, more canteens seemed inevitable. Horizontal slats of dark wood lent nearby Clive a masculine feel, almost like a mod ski lodge, when it opened in 2010. Out back is the mescal mini-bar Ilegal. Bar 96, which debuted the next year, is open and light, not exactly usual for a sports bar. Container Bar, built from stacked storage containers and slated for an October bow, has already been celebrated for its design innovation.
"I think they are all a little different from everything else Austin has to offer," Dunlap says. Such rapid expansion in a fickle business might intimidate other bar owners. Yet Dunlap's long and varied background in the service industry has endowed her with some advantages.
"I run a tight ship," she says. "There's no turnover unless you get fired. I'm not afraid of firing somebody. My kids are very loyal. My standards are high. They are friendly, not texting, not smoking, not talking to others. We are in this industry to serve. I think that's what keeps people coming."
Along the way, however, neighbors and activists have complained about the noise, traffic and parking snarls in the Rainey area.
Next up for Dunlap: A restaurant near the dead end of East Sixth Street in an old tortilla factory. Mettle will offer comfort food including oversized cheeseburgers, pizza, salads, fresh fish complemented by lots of local ingredients and, Dunlap hopes, the consistent service she insists upon at her bars. Meanwhile, she'll continue to donate space, cash and time to charities such as One House at a Time, Planned Parenthood and the Miracle Foundation.
As if she were not busy enough, Dunlap is planning to wed Houston oil and gas businessman Chris Parker at one of her bars in November.
"He stalked me for two years," she jokes. "Not stalked in a creepy way. But he wouldn't let go. He broke me down."
Although Dunlap doesn't socialize much with other downtown club owners, she scrupulously avoids the competitive discord that poisons parts of Austin's nightlife scene.
"I don't want to fight with anybody," she says. "There's a point where you don't have to be nice. But I don't do that."
Contact Michael Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 445-1970.