In the end, Daniel Boulud's star power wasn't enough to keep drawing in Vancouver diners.
The New York celebrity chef has announced he is shuttering his two Vancouver restaurants, Lumière and the adjacent db Bistro Moderne, on March 13, after a little more than two years.
"It is with regret that we announce the closing of db Bistro Moderne and Lumière. We are working with our staff to relocate within the industry, both in our restaurants and elsewhere," said a joint statement from Mr. Boulud and his Vancouver business partners, David and Manjy Sidoo.
In an e-mailed statement, general manager Chris Gonzalez added: "Like most Vancouverites, I am saddened by this unfortunate news. … I would worry for my staff were they not such exceptional talents and consummate professionals - I have no doubt all will land on their feet in very short order."
Mr. Boulud was the first international superstar chef to open a restaurant in Canada. He was recruited to enter the Vancouver market in 2008 to replace Lumière's high-profile homegrown chef, Rob Feenie, after a falling out with the primary investors, the Sidoos.
Since then, New York celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has opened Market restaurant at Vancouver's Shangri-La Hotel, and British chef Gordon Ramsay is planning to join the Rotisserie Laurier BBQ in Montreal.
While the introduction of the HST and British Columbia's new, stricter drinking-and-driving laws have widely been blamed for hurting Vancouver's restaurant sales, the city's industry observers say Mr. Boulud's failure to thrive was a unique case.
"This is a restaurant that did have one of the best-known brands in the universe in Daniel Boulud, so for it to last just two years should come as a huge shock to everyone," says Andrew Morrison, editor of the local food and culture web site ScoutMagazine.ca.
He says that in spite of the high quality of their food and service, the two restaurants weren't able to read the lay of the land and adapt well to the market.
"I just don't think Vancouver's all that into fine dining any more," he says. "As a food city, we've really come to terms with how we want to dine - which is not formally, not with white tablecloths, it's not with big balloon crystal wine glasses and 12-course tasting menus. We like to take it easy. We like to relax."
Moreover, he says, the split between Mr. Feenie and the Sidoos forced many diners to choose sides with Mr. Feenie, and Lumière was not able to retain its original customer base.
Mr. Morrison says of the more than 300 noteworthy restaurants that have opened in Vancouver over the past few years, only 10 have been fine dining establishments, and of those 10, five have been forced to close or refashion themselves into more casual businesses. However, he says, that doesn't mean Vancouver's restaurant scene is suffering.
"The [restaurants]that are doing a good job are packed," he says.
Lee Man, who writes about food for Vancouver Magazine, says Mr. Boulud's strategy of importing staff, recipes and concepts from New York never seemed to gain traction with local diners.
"It did feel like it was a restaurant from somewhere else that popped up in Vancouver," Mr. Man says. "I think people went out of initial curiosity, but there were a lot of ingredients being flown in and people just didn't connect to that."
Mr. Boulud's failure in the market, however, will likely be to the advantage of other local restaurants.
"Other restaurants will benefit from picking up some very good staff," Mr. Man says.