Fallen Star

On April 8, fourteen months after it opened, Austin's Star Canyon served its last cowboy ribeye. What went wrong? Here's the dish.

June 2002By Comments

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; revenues were a respectable $60,000 a week for the first couple of months, which works out to $3.1 million a year. (The Dallas operation does around $3.5 million.) But by the time the plug was pulled, the take had shrunk to a paltry $25,000 to $30,000 a week.

If timing was a problem, so was the food. True, I loved those quesadillas. And during the opening week, when chef Matthew Dunn came down from the Dallas location to cook for the preview parties, the style and sophistication blew me away. But after he left, the food was somehow different, as if the kitchen wasn’t on the same wavelength as before. As it turned out, it wasn’t. Changes had been instituted to make the menu more Austin-friendly. The staff and chefs thought the dishes being served in Dallas would be too small and too froufrou, so they tried to make them a bit simpler and more down-home. Portions were supersized to give greater value. Some things worked beautifully, like the signature cowboy ribeye with red-chile onion rings, but other preparations lacked finesse. Flavors were not just intense but aggressive. In complex dishes it seemed as if the ingredients were fighting rather than blending. Speaking for myself, I wanted the New Texas Cuisine that Stephan Pyles had made famous, not somebody else’s interpretation of it, especially considering that a three-course dinner could run $30 to $45 without wine or cocktails. By the time Carlson Restaurants announced in February that it was refocusing on T.G.I. Friday’s and another lucrative chain and selling its more-elite eating places, including the Star Canyons, the Austin property had lost whatever luster it once possessed. Six Continents Hotels, which owns Inter-Continental Hotels (and had invested $1.7 million in construction costs), took over the flailing restaurant and promptly shut it down.

So was it the food, the economy, or the Dallas thing that killed Star Canyon Austin? A little of each, I suspect, plus one other factor that’s really tricky to quantify: the absence of Stephan Pyles. People in the business say that duplicating a complex restaurant without the head guy is almost impossible. Mico Rodriguez, the CEO of an extremely successful group of Dallas restaurants called the M Crowd, says, “Somebody has to carry that DNA in them; somebody has to live and breathe it from minute to minute and from hour to hour.” Jeff Blank, the creator and co-owner of Hudson’s on the Bend, west of Austin, concurs: “The personality and energy and excellence of a restaurant flows from the person in charge. If the chef is proud and he gives the plate a little spin when it hits the hot line, that impresses the waiter, and he carries that same vibrancy out to the table.” The energy bounces around to the sous chefs and prep cooks and everybody involved. Pyles himself agrees: “You can’t do it without the chef. You need that personality.”

Would Austin have worked if Pyles had been around? No doubt he would have kept the food on course, and his occasional presence would have created a buzz, which would have galvanized the staff, brought in customers, and improved the bottom line. Nobody knows, of course, but personally I think having Big Daddy in charge is the one thing that could have kept disaster from striking. And here’s a final, ironic tidbit: Pyles is being wooed by two groups of investors who are interested in buying Star Canyon Dallas. He’s not saying whether he’ll jump back in the game, but if he does, I’ll be mad. Why couldn’t he have done it in time to save Austin and my venison sausage quesadillas?

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