“Do we really have to walk under that?!!” I yelled, eyeing the ladder in front of the only doorway.
A rich, booming voice from inside replied,“What, name the worst thing that can happen! Hell, I’m thinking of leaving this thing here permanently just to see what people will do. If they have the balls to walk through, then I know they’re really serious about getting a drink.”
Through the course of our nearly hour-long conversation, I realized this wasn’t even the weirdest idea Terry Rutledge had for Connect Four, a bar soon to open on a burgeoning stretch of Rainey Street in Austin, Texas, just a few doors down from such neighborhood draws as Javelina, The Blackheart Whiskey Bar, Chris Bostick’s impeccable cocktail den, Half Step, as well as a growing confluence of eclectic food trucks.
During a recent visit to Austin, a friend of a mutual friend put me in touch with Rutledge. Actually, it was following a discussion about the most eccentric people we’d ever met in the business. Apparently my experiences in New York City had nothing on what could go down in Texas, and I just had to meet this guy, she said. I couldn’t go back to New York without doing so. In the first 30 seconds of meeting Rutledge, I knew she couldn’t be more right.
I gathered the courage to walk under the ladder, Stevie Wonder suddenly playing in my head, and the writing was already on the wall. Literally. My friend and I gazed around at the rustic paint-washed walls, which had been carefully stenciled in classic typewriter font with words and phrases such as “lip service,” “distemper,” “fruited plain” and “hydroponic.” Rutledge called from an unseen room that he would be out shortly, to make ourselves at home.
Though he had been eager to meet me and agreed to an interview, I was prohibited from taking pictures of either the bar or Rutledge, who didn’t want anyone to see the project till it becomes official in late April. The small town Texas Hill Country native had been going around the area researching the bar scene anonymously, known only to close friends, not letting anyone else know what he was up to. When he finally presented himself, he looked more Bushwick/Williamsburg Brooklyn than what I’d come to associate with modern Texas hipster chic - low slung skinny jeans, tight t-shirt that didn’t quite make it to his hips so that hairs in places one shouldn’t see places on his protruding gut and below were plainly, immodestly visible. Upstairs, ginger hair swept to one side and followed the line of the one long, graying lambchop sideburn beneath it, like 80s style asymmetrical dos but with facial hair. I didn’t know where to fix my gaze, as all of it made me uncomfortable. Instead, I kept reading the walls. “thirst,” “dandelion,” “purple mounted…”
Despite the odd decor, the bar area was rather comfortable. Solid oak, stools with plush leather cushions that seemed just the right height. For now, naked bulbs lit the way, but proper fixtures were on order. Rutledge said he knew a guy who was working on chandeliers made from recycled whisky bottles. Sounds alright.
Amanda Schuster: “So why call it ‘Connect Four?’"
Terry Rutledge: “Pretty sneaky, sis.”
TR: “That was my favorite commercial growing up and I want to be able to say ‘pretty sneaky, sis’ at least twelve times a night, ‘cos someone is always going to ask that question. Maybe every time I have to say it we do a shot.”
AS: “What would be the shot?”
TR: “Depends on what I feel like. Amaretto. Galiano. Blue Curaçao. Creme de Banane. But most of the time, I’m thinking straight up Peychaud’s.”
TR: “Want one?”
AS: “Um, not just now, thanks. So I hear you’re planning on a really interesting, what some might call, ‘alternative juice’ program.”
TR: “Yeah. This is Texas, man! Anyone can make a Margarita with fresh lime juice! I’m making mine with fresh rhubarb!”
AS: “Seriously? How do you get fresh rhubarb juice?”
TR: “Well, rhubarb doesn’t make much juice, so you have to get a lot of it. I know a place I can buy in bulk. My bar staff will probably have to arrive at work 5 hours before service to make it, and it doesn’t make a lot of juice, but those one or two customers who are lucky to get it will be pretty psyched to drink it.”
AS: “Won’t that be really expensive? Just for one or two drinks?”
TR: “Yeah. So? The people who want it will order it, and if we run out, it creates demand.”
AS: “Like the Cronut of the cocktail world.”
TR: “The hell is a Cronut?”
I begin to explain, but clearly uninterested in the story, he suddenly jumps out of his seat, rummages behind the bar, throws a few things in a shaker with ice, and presents my friend and me with what is actually a rather tasty beverage - a Chamo-rita.
AS: “YUM. This is made with a chamomile infusion?”
TR: “Infusion? Screw that! Anyone can make an infusion. This is chamomile JUICE, baby!”
AS: “Chamomile juice? But wouldn’t it be more efficient to just let the flowers steep in a good base spirit?”
TR: “Too easy. Infusions are for sissies.”
AS: “So don’t you have to source a ton of chamomile just to extract the wee bit of juice from it?”
AS: “And won’t it only make like one or two cocktails?”
TR: “What’s your point?”
I’m starting to think it’s getting on time to go, delicious as the Chamo-rita is. I move to gather my things and begin thanking Rutledge for his time.
TR: “Wait. I didn’t tell you about one of my favorite drinks that’s gonna be on the menu.”
AS: “Ok, tell me.”
AS: “A Margarita with fresh prune juice?”
TR: “Fresh prune juice, Tequila… and Fernet Branca!”
AS: “Um, won’t that have rather, how do I put this delicately, adverse gastrointestinal implications…”
Rutledge cuts me off. “Like you’re gonna wanna go drinking anywhere else after coming here?”
My friend and I give each other the unspoken signal. It was time to head over to Half Step.
Happy April 1st, everyone! Be kind to one another!