By Jim Schutze
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He has only been working behind the bar since last New Year's Eve, so he can't really size up the extent of the dining room hemorrhage, he says. "I've never really seen it busy," he deadpans as the television monitors behind him play out the Texas drama Giant.
It's Saturday night, Star Canyon's last weekend gasp before owner Carlson Restaurants Worldwide put it out of its misery the following Monday. Yet this Saturday night (May 17) was the most robust the bartender had ever seen it in his short stint pouring wine and shaking martinis at the Dallas dining icon. At its peak at roughly 8:45 p.m., the restaurant is just over half full.
It's hard to believe this is the same restaurant. Almost immediately after it was opened in May 1994 by celebrity chef Stephan Pyles and his fellow Routh Street Café veteran Michael Cox (with backing from TCBY Enterprises President Herren Hickingbotham), Star Canyon and its New Texas cuisine drew a steady stream of celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey, Cindy Crawford, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and the Rolling Stones. The spectacle created an irresistible draw and had the restaurant booking reservations some two months in advance.
"In its salad days it was the place to be, the place to go, the defining benchmark for Dallas dining," says Royce Ring, who engineered Carlson's acquisition of Star Canyon and the Pyles-Cox seafood restaurant AquaKnox in 1998 to put some gloss on Carlson's large stable of T.G.I. Friday's restaurants. Yet it was this acquisition that in retrospect started the slow, painful drip that bled Star Canyon of its luster and left it gasping.
Ring, who is now a restaurant concept developer with Chicago-based architecture and design firm Knauer Inc., says that the Pyles-Cox restaurants were crucial acquisitions in his quest to build a fine dining wing under the Carlson umbrella with the moniker Emerging Brands. "The acquisition of Star Canyon was a very important statement about Carlson because it established that that was the level we intended to play the game," he explains. "It set the benchmark for the way we were to go about doing business." This benchmark set the tone for patrons and vendors alike, generating buzz for the concepts Ring and his team developed and launched--Samba Room, Mignon and Timpano Italian Chophouse--in the wake of the acquisition.
But just two years after Carlson acquired the Pyles-Cox creations, including their Mexico City concept Taqueria Cañonita, and spread them to Dallas and Las Vegas, Cox and Pyles bolted to pursue other interests. A year later, Ring was gone and the Emerging Brands portfolio was put on the block.
Initially Carlson attempted to sell them in one neat chunk, but sources say Carlson (the company did not comment for the substance of this article) ran into difficulties disposing of the restaurants in the wake of the stock market crumble. While it successfully sold off a significant cluster of the restaurants late last year, Star Canyon and Fishbowl (the casual restaurant created from the upscale AquaKnox) remained dangling.
Yet sources involved in attempts to acquire Fishbowl say Carlson's experience disposing of that restaurant last April set the stage for the demise of Star Canyon. Pursued by at least three Dallas restaurant groups--Tristan Simon's Consilient Restaurants, Ferré founder Patrick Colombo and Bluewater Restaurant Group led by Foodstar and Sfuzzi alumnus Michael Costa--Fishbowl was ultimately sold to San Francisco-based William Sonoma to expand its Pottery Barn retail space.
Why? According to sources close to the transaction, Carlson had a difficult time enticing restaurant operators to swallow the stiff lease terms attached to the Knox Street property. So it was forced to sweeten the deal by offering to sublet the restaurant, subsidizing roughly 40 percent of the rent for the remaining four-plus years on the lease. This potential drain was plugged when William Sonoma stepped in.
The relative painlessness with which Fishbowl was disposed of influenced Carlson's decision to suddenly shutter Star Canyon on the ground floor of the Centrum building, sources say. A number of parties, including Costa, Enclave operator Nick Natour, who picked up Carlson's Mignon steak bistro early last year, and Newport Beach, California-based Fleming's Steak House and Wine Bar (Fleming's officials did not return calls for comment), made plays for the Dallas icon. But according to Natour and Costa, the deals were thrown into disarray by the unwillingness of The Centrum's owner, Centrum GS Limited, which is controlled by an international investor, to sign off on the suitors Carlson brought to the table.
"The landlord is a hard person to deal with," says Natour, who complains he was pitted against the deep pockets of Fleming's in the negotiations. "We had a deal. We had a handshake." The deal eventually went sour, Natour says. "I'm no competition to the Fleming boys."
Enter Costa, whose Bluewater Restaurant Group is backed by Efficient Network Systems founder Mark Floyd and his daughter Melissa (Floyd sold his Dallas-based digital subscriber line modem and router company to Siemens AG in 2001 for $1.5 billion). Though he felt he got burned on his Fishbowl play, Costa went after Star Canyon anyway. But his deal also failed when Carlson realized it could dispose of its headaches by paying off the remaining 18 months on its Centrum lease. "By the time they got rid of Fishbowl, they had...only one restaurant that's basically sucking wind," Costa says. "When they got rid of Fishbowl, Carlson said, 'Know what, screw it. We're going to close it and let [the landlord] sue us. We're going to pay him the 18 months anyway, and they can basically go screw themselves.'"