Stampede at Star Canyon

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.

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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.  

There's genuine talent behind Star Canyon. The pragmatic Cox and the artistic Pyles are a perfect match, their expertise completely complementary. They grew up together in this business--Cox started his career at Pyles' first restaurant, moving from waiter to captain at Routh Street Cafe, where he was converted to the chef's creed of regional cuisine. His later experience at Hotel Crescent Court gave him an even stronger base in Dallas society.

And at the precise point when most entrepreneurial partnerships fall apart, this one is strongest. Not only do Pyles and Cox have similar ambitions, they share the same ideals and passion. They consciously set out to challenge the old way of running a restaurant--the name game in which the guys with the fame and money prove their prestige by playing "I can get a table." The partners have an impossibly naive philosophy of pragmatic fair play. "I've been through enough bad business," Pyles says flatly. "I don't care who's at the tables as long as they're filled."

But their openness has backfired: Star Canyon is the least accessible restaurant in town. Star Canyon opened when Dallas was a dining desert--several of the city's finest restaurants had died. Actuelle had closed. Pyles' Routh Street Cafe, our one claim to international dining fame, had closed suddenly, the casualty of a soured relationship. Dallas diners were depressed. We'd fallen off the culinary map, lost what little cachet we ever had. There was no place to wear your Escada suit or your concho belt. There was no place to strut, no place to be seen. There was no scene.

It was the perfect time to open a high-profile restaurant--and Star Canyon quickly gave us back our admittedly somewhat pompous pride of place. But a restaurant needs a lot more than fine food to be a Big Hit. It needs the spotlight of society support and celebrity guests. Dallas society is a compressed, competitive world, and the fishbowl is too small. In New York, there are dozens of hot spots; they open and close constantly. In Dallas, we're lucky to have one at a time--there's a lot of pressure to be where the action is. And there's pressure on new restaurants to prove that they're that place.

Star Canyon, truth be told, paid in advance for a lot of its problems. Last month, a frustrated Cox finally told Laurey Peat & Associates, the PR firm that serves Star Canyon, to "slow down" the feed to the society columnists--Helen Bryant and Alan Peppard--who regularly mention who's been seen at Star Canyon. Dallasites had begun to resent reading about who's eating at the restaurant they can't get into.

"This is the most overwhelming restaurant I've ever worked with--the response has been far greater than we ever imagined," Cox protests. "Everything we designed into this restaurant is paying off, but it was never supposed to be this kind of snooty place."

But that's what it is. In a large part, that's what Dallas' desire for status has forced it to be. And there's seemingly nothing Cox can to do about it. To get a weekend reservation at Star Canyon, you have to call a couple of months ahead of time, though most people simply don't believe it. "That's just what they tell you so they can turn those tables," says Julia Sweeney, whose firm handles public relations for The Mansion on Turtle Creek. "If you're a regular at The Mansion, Wayne finds a way to get you in."

Wayne Broadwell is the long-time maitre'd at The Mansion, formerly the most exclusive seat in town. He's a pro at prioritizing the demands of high-profile persons and the public, and his attitude toward Star Canyon's popularity "problem" is philosophical: "If you've got 'em hanging from the rafters, you can tell them when they can come. And Star Canyon is the hottest thing in Dallas right now. It's happened before--it happened at San Simeon, it happened at Sfuzzi. The fever will subside." Broadwell admits he overbooks The Mansion regularly, so someone's going to have to wait. "I always have an alternative--I have that bar to put you in," he says. "And a good maitre'd always has a table in his pocket."  

Cox argues that Star Canyon's scheduling has as much to do with protecting the quality of the food as getting diners a table--not just a reservation. "Our goal is that no one arrives for dinner here and is kept waiting," he says. "If their reservation is for 7:30 p.m., that means they have a table at 7:30 p.m."

But the pace at Star Canyon, he says, is also meant to protect the kitchen. Star Canyon only books 45 people per half-hour. Obviously, if everyone had a 6:30 p.m. reservation and arrived on time, the kitchen would be overwhelmed--no one would get his meal on time. Cox claims that "the real issue is our commitment to the quality of dining--our food's complicated, so it takes time to prepare and to set up the plates." But people who get there at 6:30 p.m. and see that only eight or 10 tables are taken don't understand why they can't be seated.

Besides eliminating waiting and offering exceptional food, Cox is dedicated to allowing diners time to do what they really came to do: bask. Cox says that every reservation has at least 2 1/2 hours to dine--plenty of time to see, be seen, and ogle the celebrities you assume didn't have to make a reservation three months ago.

The end result of Cox's service goal is that most Star Canyon diner wannabes are turned down or told they can only dine at the off-peak times of 6 p.m. or 10 p.m. Their reaction to his good intentions is a nasty, if probably misdirected, backlash. Everyone hates Star Canyon's reservationists.

"Nobody likes to be treated like they're unimportant," says Chris Jonsson, a Dallas food consultant. "Those people at the front are rude at Star Canyon. You can't get a reservation, and they act like they don't care."

Cox's response is almost plaintive: "We spent $45,000 on training and had four pre-opening events to get the staff ready. But we can't train the front desk enough. Every single person we've put in that position has had a complaint against them."

Broadwell points out that the key players at The Mansion--himself and chef Dean Fearing--know the "name game" in Dallas and play it like they're expected to--rearranging the dining room slightly for a big wheel, buying him drinks if you have to make him wait. "But it's hard at Star Canyon to get past the hostesses to Michael Cox, who knows the Dallas scene and how to make people happy when you're telling them no."

The outcry, oddly enough, has forced Cox to bend on his egalitarian principles. His initial policy was to leave a third of the floor unbooked and encourage people to walk in, a nice idea for the kind of casual cafe he and Pyles originally envisioned. But the walk-in crowds were unmanageably huge, and people were even more frustrated to be refused a table after they'd been encouraged just to show up.

Now, nearly every table in the place is booked months ahead of time. Cox is experimenting with several solutions, none of which is likely to make anyone without an 8 p.m. dinner reservation very happy.

In addition to eight phone lines and a new voice mail system, Cox spent $7,000 to replace the traditional hostess notebooks with two linked laptop computers and specially designed software. (Broadwell scoffs at the high-tech solution; The Mansion still writes its reservations in a book with a pencil.) Star Canyon's reservations software--a cousin to a system at, of all places, TGI Friday--is the ultimate in crowd control. Red and green clock icons appear on the screen to indicate which tables are open. (The screen shows nothing but red clocks on the day I was there, right up till 10:30 p.m. The only green icon was for 6:30 p.m. the next Saturday.) Once you're entered into the computer, you have a dossier that tells the reservationist the date of your last visit, the total times you've visited, and--shades of a dining Big Brother--the times you've "no-showed" and the times you've canceled. There's a comment section ("wife's birthday," "food writer") and, if you get that far, a place for the coded confirmation number assigned to each reservation.

That nine-digit number is everything. Murder may be a way to get your daughter on the cheerleading squad, but it won't get you into Star Canyon, unless you persuade your victim to give you his confirmation number before you pull the trigger.

The new system protects the restaurant--and other diners--from bluffers who push their way in, taking someone else's table by claiming to have reservations they never made. It happens all the time. It also lets the restaurant know if it's made an error.  

If Star Canyon has done anything, it's proved what a rich pie the Dallas scene is. And with Cox's ongoing struggle to handle its overwhelming success, plenty of restaurants have their eye on a piece of it. No one is complaining about Star Canyon's fare once they get the chance to try it. It's generally agreed that Pyles' cuisine is some of the finest in the state; few restaurants would be able to compete with his food. It was named one of the Best New Restaurants by the James Beard Foundation, it was on Bon Appetit's list of Top 10 Restaurants in America, on Esquire's Top 25, and the list goes on and on...

But with the insatiable hunger for Star Canyon's tables and the rising bitterness of diners spurned, it's clear that there's plenty of room for more restaurants in this niche. Joey Vallone's recently opened Oak Lawn restaurant is aiming at the Star Canyon crowd, and Broadwell believes Star Canyon has already felt the impact of Joey's opening. "People in Dallas are very fickle. They'll all desert the hot restaurant for the new hot restaurant. But if you consistently put out a wonderful product and good service, you're going to keep your regulars."

So how do you get a table at Star Canyon? The best way is simply, unglamorously, to plan ahead--weeks ahead. Supermodel Cindy Crawford made reservations two weeks ahead of time. And that was in the slow season. Even the Rolling Stones booked the wine room six weeks out. Cox recommends calling between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., the earlier the better. "We start at 9 a.m. calling to give out confirmation numbers. That's when the cancellations come in. Canceled tables are filled first-come, first-serve."

Pyles, Cox, and floor manager George Majdalani each reserve two tables for themselves. So if you know them personally through a connection or from (patiently) dining regularly at the restaurant, you can call them as a last resort and ask for one of those tables. Even that doesn't always work. On Cox's desk I saw several pages of a yellow legal pad filled with personal requests. There was a big "NO" next to high society hairdresser Paul Neinast's name, and restaurant executive Clive O'Donoghue's, despite their being an entre to the society columns. If you do get a table that way and then can't show, don't even think about trading that personal favor.

And Star Canyon doesn't take any standing reservations, even from regulars, because they don't want tables to be "brokered"--if it's status-building to get a table at Star Canyon, it's even more impressive to be able to give one away.

Finally, Michael says bribes won't help, either. "Just because they're stuffing hundred dollar bills in my pocket, I still can't get them a table if there isn't one. George always tells people, wait and see if I can get you a table--then give me the money."

Still, Cox has retained one loophole for the grasshoppers of the world: The grill and the patio are seated on a first-come, first-serve basis, no reservations.

Can a restaurant be ruined by its own popularity? Probably not. People are complaining about Star Canyon, but only because they want to get in and can't. The most indignant protests come from the people who would value a table the most, the ones who really are playing the social game and feel like they're losing.

The negative word on the street hasn't translated into empty tables yet--the restaurant isn't losing. It's still full every day for lunch and dinner. Restaurants are destroyed by bad management, not big crowds. Trends disappear and restaurants vanish with them, but "Texas" in Dallas is hardly a trend--it's a fact of life that Star Canyon makes more bearable. And economic downturns--death to the dining rooms with dress codes--won't hurt a place that serves enchiladas under $10 and entres under $20. The truth is that Star Canyon seems to be doing the best it can to play "fair" about who gets a table. But who cares if the game's "fair" when you're not winning?

So grab your phone: as of this writing, the soonest you could get a table between 7 and 9 on a Saturday night is the third week of January.

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