Ten years ago, a server greeted guests at a brand-new downtown Dallas restaurant. “Welcome to Stephan’s Pile,” the server exclaimed.
The server should have said “welcome to Stephan Pyles,” of course, the Modern Texas restaurant named after one of Dallas’ most well-known chefs. Stephan Pyles, in fact, was standing there when his restaurant was reduced to a heap. And he didn’t laugh.
Today, Pyles sees the humor in those early mistakes. See, Stephan Pyles is in a small fraternity of top Dallas restaurants, and its servers are impeccably trained. They don’t usually mess up. They definitely don’t mispronounce the chef and the restaurant’s name.
Pyles could tell dozens of stories about the ups and downs at Stephan Pyles since it opened in November 2005. He’s cooked for the Rolling Stones, Michelle Obama and Martha Stewart, all who “just know,” Pyles says, that his restaurant is a suitable place for celebrities and socialites. He remembers slimming down the staff and waiting patiently when the recession brought fewer customers into his high-dollar establishment.
Each snapshot of the downtown Dallas restaurant seems all the more surreal given its impending closure Saturday. The staff will move a few blocks away to a smaller, fancier restaurant in the Dallas Arts District expected to open in late May.
During Stephan Pyles’ last suppers, many stopped the chef to gush about their favorite dish or ask for an early reservation to the new restaurant. The chef hugged and smooched his fans charismatically.
“I think they’re gonna miss this place more than I will,” Pyles says.
If it’s true that some people need a change in their romantic lives every seven years, then Pyles needs a restaurant change every decade or so.
“Ten years is plenty,” he says of the restaurant’s run. “I like to keep it fresh.”
Pyles has opened and closed a handful of iconic restaurants in the last 30 years in Dallas. The most noteworthy ones lasted about 10 years each: Routh Street Cafe (1983-1993), Baby Routh (1986-1994) and Star Canyon (1994-2003). He’s closing Stephan Pyles because his 10-year lease has expired. He’s been ready for the next thing for more than a year anyhow.
Surprisingly, Pyles’ favorite part of opening a new spot is the design, not the food. He happily agonizes over the artwork, color schemes and floor plans.
“When Stephan opened Star Canyon … it was the hottest restaurant in the city at the time,” says Dallas chef Kent Rathbun of Abacus, Jasper’s and Hickory. “I remember he had stir sticks that were shaped like barbed wire. There were black-and-white Westerns playing on the TVs. … When you get to this level of restaurants, people come for an experience. They’re looking for more than just food.”
Chef Dean Fearing of Fearing’s Restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton agrees: “I can pinpoint the day I visited Routh Street Cafe. I walked in that place and it made me jealous.”
Pyles’ mark on Dallas dining
Every discussion about the evolution of the Dallas dining scene must include Pyles. He and Fearing were young, rebellious chefs in Dallas some 25 years ago. In a city full of French food, they bucked the trend and dreamed up their own genre: Southwestern cuisine in Texas, which had spice, smoke and guts.
“We were definitely cooking against the grain,” Fearing says.
Once Pyles established himself as a Southwestern chef, he refined his food into a new style, Modern Texas cuisine – “a combination of Mexican, Southern, cowboy cooking, Louisiana and German traditions” seen through a modern prism, explains Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner. Ultimately, he helped turn Dallas into one of the most interesting dining cities in the country, she says.
“Some of the things Stephan did were a little bit risky,” Rathbun says. “He was using products people had never heard of before, never seen before. I really respected that.”
Pyles’ next new restaurant
Visitors to the Dallas Arts District won’t be able to miss Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe, which will look directly out on the Meyerson Symphony Center, the Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre.
Peter Barlow, who moved from Tennessee to work with Pyles, will be executive chef. The menu isn’t finished, but Pyles expects to have a five-course tasting menu, a section of raw dishes and a relatively small menu of starters and mains.
Pyles is fixated on making his new restaurant even more formal than Stephan Pyles was -- not a popular move in Dallas right now, where many chefs are making an effort to be "more approachable." Pyles shrugs; Flora Street Café will be an “adult restaurant” -- a place where quiet conversations are possible.
And despite “café” in the name of the restaurant, flip flops and shorts aren’t appropriate here. Guests will likely be dressed for the symphony or wearing after-work business attire. They’ll be treated to a show of their own as chefs work atop white and gray marble counters in their own sort of culinary art installation.
Anyone interested in a noisier dinner is better suited for Stampede 66, Pyles’ Uptown Dallas restaurant that serves upscale “Texas” food such as chili pie and chicken-fried buffalo.
Nostalgic fans will find four iconic dishes from Stephan Pyles relocated to Stampede 66:
the cowboy rib-eye with red chile onion rings; the tamale tart; a Caesar salad with jalapeño polenta croutons; and the heaven and hell cake.
They simply couldn’t just disappear, Pyles says.
When asked what Pyles might miss most about Stephan Pyles, his fine-dining home for more than 10 years, he can’t think of much. “I guess I’ll miss my parking spot, which says ‘Reserved for Chef Stephan Pyles,’ ” he says.
Some restaurants just aren’t meant to live forever, and Pyles will be the first to say it.
Follow Sarah Blaskovich on Twitter at @sblaskovich.
Ask a chef: Name a Stephan Pyles dish you wish you had thought of first:
Dean Fearing of Fearing’s
“I went crazy. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to figure this sauce out,’ ” he says, noting a “mysterious smoke.” That sauce “literally changed my world,” he says.
Kent Rathbun of Abacus, Hickory, Jasper’s
“I had never seen those combinations before, and I thought, ‘Let me get this straight: He’s using the moldy part of the corn husk?’ ”