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