It’s safe to say Robert Grunnah knows this town well. The owner of real estate firm Castle Hill Investments, he’s been one of the top commercial real estate brokers in the area for years. Now he’s taking that expertise and a passion for the city he’s called home for more than two decades, and opening Highland, an upscale gay bar that will cater to clientele seeking a sophisticated downtown bar and club experience. Look for one of Austin’s best-loved mixologists, Joyce Garrison, behind the bar. The renovated warehouse space will feature everything from laid-back happy hours to live music and dance parties. We sat down with Grunnah to talk about Highland and its role in Austin’s evolving downtown.
You’ve had a successful real estate investment career. What made you want to take on this new endeavor?
It’s pretty clear that Austin is becoming an increasingly global city, recognized both for its residents’ independence and an authentic, unique style that has grown out of being a liberal oasis in a very “red” state. For years, I’ve been trying to determine how I might make my own small contribution to what makes this city special. And since I’ve been going out to gay bars in Austin for over 20 years, I thought that was an area in which I had enough knowledge and passion to make my mark.
In doing research for this project, I’ve traveled extensively to visit the gay bars, dance clubs, and restaurants that are considered icons in their cities – not just for the LGBTQ community – but for their entire communities. Think of the Abbey in Los Angeles, Sidetrack in Chicago, or The Round-Up in Dallas. I’ve really tried to unravel the DNA of what makes those bars so special. I found that patrons are essentially looking for four things: a beautiful and comfortable environment, exceptional hospitality from the staff, quality drinks at reasonable prices, and a fun vibe with exciting entertainment that changes often. The result of my research has led to Highland – we started absolutely from scratch with a clean sheet of paper.
What was behind the name?
In Austin, water is a focus for gathering and entertainment, specifically around the Highland Lakes – the string of seven lakes in and around Austin. Highland seemed the perfect name and inspiration for how the LGBTQ community here celebrates. The Highland Lakes were also the inspiration for the design.
What sets Highland apart from other downtown bars? And what role do you expect it to play in the community?
Austin has a well-established ecosystem of gay bars, and the existing bars do a good job of catering to their clientele, but the reality is that there is a large swath of the community whose needs are not currently being met. What makes us different? First and foremost is our staff. We’ve searched high and low to hire a talented and phenomenally diverse team (mirroring the diversity of our LGBTQ community) – and we’ve trained everyone thoroughly in the delicate art of hospitality. We want you to feel connected to Highland, and that during each visit you feel welcomed and that we’re genuinely happy to see you. We’re also going to make sure you have a lot of fun.
As far as giving back, Highland is making community involvement a central tenet in its mission. In addition to providing free space to LGBTQ nonprofit organizations, we’re also contributing a significant portion of profits to these causes each month. We’re building the Highland brand with an eye to the future and for the long haul – we’re here not only to provide a place to come together for the LGBTQ community, but also to provide a venue that is an optimistic reflection of the community’s values and aspirations.
What’s your favorite feature of Highland?
Our building at 404 Colorado is this awesome 1940’s era warehouse. It was used as a machine shop after World War II for working on large trucks of the era. Today, those epic 30-foot ceilings create this intense atmospheric experience that is just not found elsewhere in Austin. Of course, we’re not the first to discover the building – it is one of Austin’s most legendary nightclub locations, having hosted gay and lesbian private parties as far back as the 1970s. In the 1980s it was the legendary Hall’s nightclub where gays and straights came to dance together. In the early 90’s, Club 404 (where I came out of the closet!) began a long iteration of gay clubs. More recently, it has been Poly Esther’s, Vicci, and Kiss and Fly. People have flocked to that space for decades for an unrivaled hedonistic experience…today, we’re adding a level of refinement, but are still intent on keeping the party DNA firmly in place.
What have you learned so far that you didn’t expect to?
Opening a bar takes three times as long and costs three times as much as you initially plan for. As we started the project, the designer’s and my vision for the space expanded. If we could resurrect a stellar dance club in this space, couldn’t we also create a beautiful lounge space for a daytime and early evening happy hour? Once we made that decision, it opened the floodgates to re-envision every other component of the bar as well. Previous patrons of bars in this space will be hard-pressed to recognize anything from the past. It has been a long slog to get to opening, and has cost considerably more than I had anticipated. But it occurs to me that this is the type of venture that in order to get right, you need to “go big or go home”. I’m very proud of what we’ve built and I think our community will agree.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who have noted – and liked – that Austin doesn’t have a clearly defined “gay district.” Do you think that’s changing as the city grows?
I think it’s wonderful that we live in a city that has generally been so tolerant that our community hasn’t felt the need to huddle together for its own protection. That said, I think every community with shared culture and values seeks to have a central place to meet and socialize. In order for the Warehouse District to gain more traction as the “gay district”, I think we need more establishments that cater to different needs of the LGBTQ community. For example, it would be great to get a “gay” restaurant down there like many other cities have in their “gayborhoods”. However, Austin real estate prices can be very cost-prohibitive for such ventures, so it’s unclear whether the gay critical mass will ever be less decentralized than it is today. At least as far as nightlife goes, however, I think it’s clear that the community prefers its bars and entertainment venues to be within walking distance from each other.
Do you think the role of the “gay bar” has changed as an important community meeting place, as apps and websites have come out that help people meet up? Why do you think there’s a need for a new gay bar?
The role of the gay bar has certainly evolved significantly over the years and continues to do so. One of the symbolic things we’ve done to our building in this renovation is to create 10-foot-high sliding glass windows that open on to Colorado Street. We’re the first gay bar in Austin in which practically the entire facade opens to the neighborhood. Our message is: “Hey – we’re not ashamed or afraid for you to see us anymore. We’re all members of the larger community and we also welcome you into our bar for a drink.” I believe that Highland and other gay bars will increasingly become meeting places not just for the LGBTQ community, but for our straight allies as well. After all, who doesn’t appreciate a well-made drink in an inviting atmosphere? And what straight person doesn’t agree that gay people excel at creating fabulous interior spaces and dance clubs that really know how to make you dance?
Some may choose to meet Mr. Right now on Grindr instead of at a bar these days, but you’re going to prefer a safe, fun, and welcoming environment to spend time with your friends (and eventually Mr. Right if all goes well!) As the recent backlash against social media has pointed out, there simply is no substitute to actual human interaction.
What do you hope your customers will be saying about Highland five years from now?
Our team’s goal is for Highland to become nothing less than an Austin institution. Look, we’re sincerely focused here on trying to create an enduring business that will stand the test of time. We’re taking pains to be a place where everyone in the community is welcome – gay and straight, young and old, pretty and not-so-pretty. We’re going to treat you like family. We’re going to make you a beautiful cocktail, and we’re going to play you some great music. Come after work to enjoy a drink, or come at 3am to dance and get crazy.What I really want people to be saying five years from now is that they’re glad we came along, and that we consistently add something valuable to their Austin experience.
Of all the changes going on in Austin right now, what do you think are among the best, both for the city’s businesses and its residents?
I share other long-time Austin residents’ frustration with our sluggish traffic, increasing housing prices, and somewhat of a diminishment of that cozy small town we once were, but I think the recent boom’s benefits outweigh its negatives. In order for a city to stay vibrant, it needs a constant influx of newcomers bringing their own customs, enthusiasm, and ambitions – fresh faces and ideas are key.! I love the fact that there are young chefs who are creating genius concepts all over town right now…have you eaten at Odd Duck? Wow – that food is as exceptional as any cutting edge chef is cooking in the U.S. right now. Not to mention homegrown Austin franchises such as Alamo Drafthouse, Uchi, and Qui. I love that I can enjoy cutting-edge theater in East Austin from a recently transplanted Brooklyn theater group and then drive 15 minutes to catch an intimate Dale Watson set at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon. I also think it’s great that companies like Google consider our early-adopter population an ideal test bed for Google Fiber, and that start-ups from around the country are lining up to move to Austin because that’s where their young creative employees want to live. Austin is the place to be for a lot of creative and free-thinking people in the country right now. There’s certainly no place I’d rather be.
Highland, 404 Colorado St., is expected to open in mid-September. Look for more information at highlandlounge.com
Interview by Kate Harrington. Photography by Michael Thad Carter.