What killed Star Canyon? A strange question, you say, considering that the tony restaurant is still very much alive and kicking at its outposts in Dallas and Las Vegas. But I’m not referring to them. I’m talking about the now-empty Austin Star Canyon, a Mini-Me of the Dallas original that opened to tremendous fanfare in February 2001 and went belly-up fourteen months later, in April of this year. Well, you say, so what? Restaurants close all the time. True, but they didn’t serve the venison sausage quesadillas that I had for lunch two times a week. They weren’t a block from my office. Their closing didn’t upset my cherished routine. Besides, I liked Star Canyon’s yellow rosebuds, its cast-iron rattlesnake door pulls, the video of Giant playing silently above the bar. And as a professional restaurantgoer, I was stunned by how fast a restaurant of its caliber came and went. Fourteen months is one untimely demise. I had to know what went wrong.
My lunch dilemma aside, let me give you a little context to explain why this is a big deal. Star Canyon Dallas is the most famous restaurant in Texas. I’m not saying it’s the best, though I would put it in the top five or so. I’m saying it has the most charisma, the highest national profile. (The only other place in the same league is Dallas’ Mansion on Turtle Creek.) When it opened in 1994, the hysteria for reservations was unbelievable. It was like trying to get tickets for a rock concert. If you wanted a table at eight o’clock on a Friday or Saturday night, you were looking at a two-month wait. A running joke was that the hostess didn’t ask which day you wanted; she asked, “Which year?” A kindly employee once told me that if I was standing outside the doors at the exact moment the dining room opened, I might be able to get a seat at the bar without a reservation (I had a vision of myself as the poor Little Match Girl in the fairy tale, peering in a window as rich people feasted). In 1995 I interviewed Star Canyon’s founder and chef, Stephan Pyles, in his office across a courtyard from the restaurant. When we finished, it was dinnertime, and Pyles said, “Come on. I’m going to cook for you.” So we walked over and I sat at the counter in front of the kitchen—where I could see flames leaping from the grill and the expediter checking every plate to be sure it was perfect—while Pyles seared foie gras and made a salad with grilled quail, poached pear, and Cambozola cheese. The food was fantastic, and I was as giddy as a teenager, caught up in the excitement that great restaurants generate. After a few years the hubbub over the place died down. In 1998 Pyles sold it to Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, staying on as executive consulting chef until 2000, when he departed over creative differences with the giant corporation. But even today Star Canyon Dallas has a reputation, and the food can knock your boots off.
So if there was ever a restaurant that should have worked, it was the baby Star Canyon in Austin. It seemed to have everything going for it. At the time it was planned, Pyles was still on board, overseeing the vibrant Mexican-inflected style of regional cooking that he called New Texas Cuisine. The restaurant had exceptionally deep pockets, thanks to its parent company. It had a solid location in the historic Stephen F. Austin Inter-Continental Hotel in downtown Austin, next door to a performing arts theater and three blocks from the warehouse district, the city’s prime nightlife destination. It had a sassy, sophisticated Western decor and great prickly-pear margaritas. It seemed golden—but it wasn’t. The glitzy opening-weekend dinners in the $2.5 million space turned out to be the restaurant’s apex; following a brief honeymoon period with the city’s fickle cafe society, it went into a death spiral from which it never recovered. On April 8 it served its last cowboy ribeye.
I talked to friends who had eaten there and people who had worked there, and I found that a lot of them believed the trouble boiled down to three words: “Austin isn’t Dallas.” This surprised me, because I enjoyed the place and thought the slick, almost tongue-in-cheek Western atmosphere was quite a tour de force. But to others, the theatrical details—such as red, yellow, and blue cowboy hats displayed in niches, like religious icons—screamed “Big D.” Quite a few people just weren’t comfortable with the level of formality either, which included waiters’ placing napkins in diners’ laps. A casual atmosphere was discouraged. Former restaurant supervisor Sherry Joseph, a native Austinite, was of the opinion that local people never minded a friendly hand on the shoulder. But she remembers a corporate trainer politely admonishing her, “We don’t touch the customers.” Then there was the fact that Star Canyon was owned by the corporation that also owned the gimmicky restaurant chain T.G.I. Friday’s, and the corporate headquarters was in, yes, Dallas. The “Dallas thing” became the scapegoat for anything that anybody didn’t like.
But not everyone that I buttonholed agreed with the “Austin isn’t Dallas” theory. A lot of them said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” When the plans for Star Canyon Austin were being laid out in 1999, every restaurant in the city was full every night. But before the dining room managed to open, the economy was going into cardiac arrest. Construction delays postponed its debut until after Christmas, a huge loss. The restaurant also missed out on the legislative session, when management had hoped the splashy space would be a big hit with lobbyists at the nearby state capitol. Former executive chef Paul Clark says, “We wanted to be the talk of the town in the holiday season, but instead we opened when the dot-coms were failing and Dell was laying off hundreds of people.” In the beginning, curiosity brought in plenty of customers;