Stampede at Star Canyon

Will success ruin Dallas' favorite restaurant?

They say a woman was refused a table at Star Canyon until the valet came in and whispered to the hostess that she was driving a red Porsche. All of a sudden, a table was available. They say a man who had been unable to get a reservation called Star Canyon again, gave the address in Highland Park he was calling from, and was given a table. At 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.

When you're keeping score in the game of life--Dallas version--getting a table at Star Canyon on a Saturday night counts for a lot of points, mostly because dinner reservations at Star Canyon are so absurdly unobtainable. Star Canyon is becoming known as the place you can't go for dinner. It's only 18 months old--and that's pretty young to become the stuff of urban legend. (The owners swear, incidentally, that the tales of Porsches and Park Cities addresses are untrue.)

But since its opening, the feeding frenzy at Star Canyon has not let up. The crowds have gotten bigger, the wait has gotten worse. And Dallas is getting mad.

Take the remarkably unremarkable tale of how Gordon Bogen, a Dallas attorney, did not dine at Star Canyon. Mr. Bogen tried last February 11 to make a dinner reservation for Saturday, March 25, and was told that the first time a table for four was available before 10 p.m. would be April 29. He tried several more times to make a reservation a month or more in advance. He failed. Mr. Bogen was so bugged that he had his secretary call other upscale Dallas restaurants to see where a table could be obtained on Saturday night at 7 p.m. (The French Room, Gaspar's, The Mansion, Sipango, and Fog City Diner--then brand new--were all available on one to two weeks' notice.) He even called restaurants in New York and L.A.--Bouley was booked for two months out. Daniel didn't even take reservations more than a month ahead. At Spago, a reservation was available on most Saturday nights in March.

Two weeks ago, the dogged Bogen had yet to taste a Star Canyon Pina Diablo. He called in early October to make reservations for a party of four on November 24 at 7:30 p.m., and "got their whole spiel again about not having tables till 10 p.m." At which point Bogan lost it and recounted his detailed research to the reservationist.

"So I said, just tell me this: On what date between now and the turn of this century can I get a table for four on Saturday night? Then they said that 'their computer' showed that they had a table at 6 p.m. on November 24," Bogen says.

"Now, I do not for one minute believe that people book restaurants a month or two in advance. You read every week that so-and-so celebrity was seen dining at Star Canyon. They didn't call three months in advance."

Maybe it's the kind of car he drives. Maybe it's his address. Still, you can't wonder why Mr. Bogen can't get a reasonable reservation at Star Canyon without wondering why he wants one so bad.

Star Canyon's appeal in Dallas is obvious. Star Canyon is where we live. Unlike its sibling rival, Fort Worth, Dallas is a Western city that's always trying to shake the dust off its boots--actually, it's trying to kick those damn boots off. But while we like to pretend Dallas is a sophisticated city like New York, out-of-state guests always want to see "the West." The old (slightly painful) joke on Dallasites is that the first place they take visitors is Fort Worth. Star Canyon is our very own tourist attraction, more fun than the Stockyards, better than barbecue. It gives us back some pride of place. It's a slick city version of Texas style, one we like a lot better than sawdust on the floor. What could be more successful in Big D than a Western restaurant where you can wear your Chanel?

And make no mistake, this is a planned phenomenon--a restaurant carefully calculated to be a star. The three owners micro-designed every aspect. They refused to sign a lease until the Centrum changed the loading zone on Cedar Springs into Star Canyon's valet parking station, a detail that required curb reconstruction and the city's approval. For hours and months they engaged in deep debates over carpet samples and shades of green, and they searched out artists and blacksmiths (what's a "Texas" restaurant without ironwork?) whose work they'd admired. They rearranged the serving line and shopped for equipment. They went through four or five re-designs of the plates alone. It's no accident it opened six months later than they'd planned--they sacrificed the deadline for perfection.

Grounded in chef Stephan Pyles' passion for regional cuisine, a philosophy of cooking he pioneered in Dallas and never abandoned, Star Canyon was conceived as the ultimate Texas restaurant. On tour with his new cookbook after Routh Street Cafe closed, Pyles was in a unique position to visit and actually cook in restaurants all over the country--a hands-on experience of what worked and what didn't. After the Routh Street Cafe and Baby Routh debacles, Stephan Pyles was determined not to get burned again. This was his baby. With Michael Cox--who'd been with him in the early days at Routh Street--to manage the front of the house, and the deep pockets of TCBY tycoon Herren Hickingbotham to fund it, there was no reason why Star Canyon shouldn't be a success. Assuming a restaurateur can learn from his mistakes.

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