Inside a cavernous structure on the corner of Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs, renowned Dallas chef Stephan Pyles strolls about, wearing a smile that is as discreetly tailored as his blue silk suit and his close-cropped beard. The 42-year-old chef’s eyes appraise the property with dreamy fondness, imagining the wine room in the corner there, the buckskin against those windows, the great stone fireplace that will overtake the wall to his right. Within a few months the vacant property will be Star Canyon restaurant, filled with the aromas of Pyles’s cooking and, presumably, with the very individuals who now drive obliviously past the building.
At the moment, the food seems like the easy part. It has been a day of numbing details for the former chef and co-owner of Routh Street Cafe. He began the morning with a three-hour session at David Carter Design Associates, where he and his partner, Michael Cox, argued over the miniscule differences between various proposed Star Canyon logos. They couldn’t agree upon the right shade of green and at one point took the meeting outside, where they stood in front of a tree and pointed at leaves: “You mean, more like that color?” “Which one? The leaf up over there?” “No, I was thinking more like that leaf farther down.” Later, Pyles and Cox drove to Turtle Creek Boulevard, where they spent two hours in the fifteenth floor conference room of the interior design firm Wilson and Associates, amid a jungle of restaurant fixture prototypes: chairs, rugs, flatware, glasses, sconces, barstools, tabletops, and wall hangings. Later still, the topic turned to ventilation and air-duct positioning, involving the kind of brain-flogging arcana that would send most wannabee restaurateurs fleeing from the business.
Perhaps no vocation attracts so many charlatans and rubes. Stephan Pyles, of course, is neither. With Routh Street Cafe and Baby Routh, he helped introduce the world to what has come to be known as New Southwestern cuisine, and along the way achieved a celebrity that has extended way beyond the Metroplex. The much-lamented closing last year of Routh Street, one of the state’s finest restaurants, had Texas foodophiles speculating about Pyles’s next move. He did not keep them in suspense for long. In March of last year, Pyles formed a partnership with Cox, a former Routh Street maitre d’. A month later, Pyles and Cox acquired the financial backing of Herren Hickingbotham, the president of Little Rock-based TCBY Enterprises and a frequent Routh Street patron. By June, the partners had thrown out hundreds of proposed names and decided upon Star Canyon. After scouting myriad locations, they settled for the space on Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs formerly occupied by a restaurant called Cassis. A month before Star Canyon opens its doors, Pyle and Cox will hire and train a staff of ninety, who will be put to the final test during a series of charity benefits that will precede the grand opening, in the last week of May.
Star Canyon is expected to embody the state of the art in Texas dining in the nineties as Routh Street did throughout the eighties. However daunting that may be, the opening of Stephan Pyles’s new restaurant comes at a hospitable moment. Texas is currently undergoing an astonishing restaurant boom. Owing to a number of favorable economic trends—a projected steady rise in personal income, climbing employment figures, increased population, and brisk trading in the wake of NAFTA—the state’s restaurateurs are expected to benefit from a record $17.3 billion in sales this year. The food service industry’s anticipated 6.4 percent growth in sales over 1993 is among the highest in the nation. Those are the numbers, but evidence of the boom is plainly visible to anyone who leaves the house for a night on the town. In the state’s major cities, it is impossible not to notice that new restaurants are springing up on a weekly basis and are seemingly packed at all hours.
In particular, upscale restaurants with concepts and aspirations similar to (if somewhat lower than) those of Star Canyon have cropped up almost overnight. A couple of miles from Pyles’s venture, on Travis, an excellent Italian bistro called Sipango opened at the beginning of March and began showing overflow business in its second weekend. The yuppie-grazing at Natura Cafe, on McKinney, has been intense since the high-gloss, low-fat establishment opened its doors a few months ago. In Houston the big-bucks but culinarily limited suburban area of Woodway and Voss is all of a sudden - thanks to Third Coast, Grotto, and Escalante’s—a serious dining haven. By the end of this year, the San Antonio River Walk will at last feature two excellent restaurants—one a creation of famed Biga chef Bruce Auden, the other an offshoot of the city’s beloved Italian haunt, Paesano’s. And in Austin, where fine-dining choices have been deplorably limited for as long as anyone can remember, no fewer than five ambitious restaurants have opened in the past year: Louie’s 106, 612 West, the Bitter End Bistro and Brewery, Stonewall’s, and Caffe Azzurro.
Without exception these restaurants share with Star Canyon a sensibility we might as well term Nouveau Grub Ethic. The notion, informed by new generational tastes and the hard lessons of the eighties, calls for sensible elegance with one eye relentlessly cocked toward the bottom line. The food served at Nouveau Grub establishments is stylishly prepared, using classic European cooking techniques but abandoning the traditional heavy cream sauces for lighter flavoring. It relies heavily on Texas products—chile peppers, red snapper, pecans —not simply for aesthetic reasons but also because they’re readily available and inexpensive. Additionally, the locally produced food is what Texas diners are familiar with; it is comfort food. Nouveau Grub may be anchored by regional influences, as with Pyles’s New Texas cuisine (which draws from Mexican, Southern, and range cooking techniques); or it may tend toward Italian, Mediterranean, Californian, Caribbean, and other culinary styles. But the fare inevitably complies with the nutrition-minded tastes and increasingly sophisticated palates of