By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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Stars came to visit, too. "We had Pavoratti in there for a private dinner," says Tim Anderson, former Routh Street sous chef who is now chef at Napa Valley Grille in Bloomington, Minnesota. "I mean, the first time I ever met Wolfgang Puck he somehow ended up in the kitchen, and he's standing there in front of me drunk on his ass in a green seersucker suit with a broken zipper."
Pyles says there was almost no end to such mayhem. "Routh Street Café was the ultimate indulgence. It was kind of the playground for the people of the '80s who had more money than they should have." He recounts episodes of people emerging from Routh Street's bathrooms with most of their clothes left behind; of groups ordering lavish five-course dinners only to push the food around on their plates between guzzles of Cristal and trips to the bathroom; of a man who passed out facedown into his food; and of wives stumbling upon their husbands dining with unexpected guests. "We caused a divorce or two," Pyles says.
But under the weight of it all, the action, the attention, the glitterati and three more restaurants (Baby Routh down the street from Routh Street and Tejas and Goodfellow's in Minneapolis), the Pyles and Dayton partnership grew strained. The Minneapolis restaurants weren't doing well, and the financial fundamentals of Routh Street itself were suspect, Pyles says. He says Routh Street raked in $1.2 million in sales the first year, peaked at $1.6 million and did $1.1 million the last year it was open, never generating much in profit. Those numbers were to feed $1 million invested in the real estate plus a $1.5 million investment in finish-out. Add to that shaky math those struggling Minneapolis restaurants plus a $300,000 kitchen renovation Pyles spearheaded, and it's easy to see the cause of the anemia.
Though Pyles was shocked by the sudden closure of Routh Street (and eventually Baby Routh) in 1993, he wasn't surprised by the growing chill that swept his once cozy partnership with Dayton. "The split didn't so much take me by surprise," he says. "I mean I was unhappy. I'm sure he was unhappy...I just knew that he was wanting some life changes." He pauses and looks out the window. "You know, it's different for people who don't have to work. You just don't understand. It's like that saying, the rich are different from the rest of us."
But for Pyles, even though he knew he was hanging onto something he shouldn't have, Routh Street was all he knew, and its demise sent him into an emotional tailspin.
On a table in the entryway of Pyles' new house is a portrait of him with Sharon Stone. To the right is a portrait of him with Andie MacDowell. He caught a lot of stars after Star Canyon opened in 1994: Mick Jagger, Jon Bon Jovi, Kevin Costner and Bill Gates. His official bio notes that he's cooked for Mikhail Gorbachev and Jimmy Carter. Pyles sighs. "I've never been overly impressed with stars. I think that they're guests. It was no different than when Tom Landry used to come in."
But it was different. Star Canyon was Pyles' comeback, the restaurant that proved not only that Pyles could do it again but that he could do it better on his own terms--this after he thought he was washed-up following Routh Street Café's closing, a time when he entertained grave questions about his relevance and reputation.
"It was certainly one of the most painful and emotional periods of my life," he says. "Because there was a sense of failure and a question of what I did wrong and what could I have done differently. It was a dark, dark time." Financially, Routh Street's death put four months' severance into Pyles' pocket.
But 18 months later, Star Canyon opened. It was a vivacious, tongue-in-cheek peek at Texas, with down-home Texas cuisine dressed in Pyles' flair. He and partner Michael Cox (onetime waiter at Routh Street) were backed financially by TCBY Enterprises President Herren Hickingbotham. They were turning people away from day one.
In retrospect, Pyles says he's come to realize his greatest strength is not necessarily his palate or his creativity or his agility with dead-on flavorings or even his demeanor. It's his ability to reinvent himself, to evolve. "At one point in time Routh Street Café was a temple of gastronomy," he says. "Everything was very precious. I wanted Star Canyon to be an experience instead of a temple of gastronomy...It was the best time of my life."
At its most profitable, Star Canyon generated some $5 million in sales annually on an investment of $1.3 million. "That was a hell of a return," Pyles cracks. The success prompted them to think about more restaurants. Pyles had ideas for a taqueria and a seafood restaurant, with the former first on the agenda. But when the Highland Park Cafeteria space came available, they abruptly reversed priorities.
Pyles admits the resulting AquaKnox turned out to be one of his greatest disappointments. He says he never felt like it came together the way he wanted because he didn't have the time to devote to it. There wasn't a strong presence in the kitchen, and it was simply too big. "It was just never quite a really special experience," he says. "And the design was never quite what we wanted. It was like it was almost not finished."