Chef Dale MacKay closes ensemble and ensembleTap restaurants

A little over a year after opening ensemble (850 Thurlow Street), chef and proprietor Dale MacKay closed ensemble and its sister restaurant, ensembleTap (990 Smithe Street), after dinner service on August 25. The winner of the inaugural season of Top Chef Canada says that high rent and stiff competition in downtown Vancouver is to blame.

“I learned quickly that opening a restaurant in the heart of Vancouver is something I should have done after building my business and expansion capital in markets that support my restaurant business plan,” MacKay stated in a news release Monday (August 27). “As it is in the Vancouver core, with the rents being so high and the market saturated with fabulous restaurants, I’d have to subsidize both operations far longer than makes good business sense.”

In a phone interview with the Straight, MacKay confirmed that rent on both spaces was $40,000 per month. He insists, however, that he does not believe that the locations, which previously housed other restaurants that closed, are bad spaces.

"I don't think that the space is cursed by any means," MacKay said, referring to ensemble's corner location off of Robson Street. "The space did me very well. Unfortunately, we opened another large restaurant in a big space, and it was too much."

MacKay opened ensemble, which served French-inspired dishes made with local ingredients, in May 2011. In December 2011, ensembleTap, which specialized in craft beers and high-quality pub food, opened its doors. Prior to opening both restaurants and competing on Top Chef Canada, MacKay honed his skills at several restaurants owned by Gordon Ramsay and at the now-closed Lumière and db Bistro Moderne in Vancouver, where he was executive chef.

“I’m willing to fall on my own sword and admit I was wrong,” MacKay stated in the news release. “If seasoned restaurateurs like Daniel Boulud find it unprofitable to compete in Vancouver, it was bold of me to think I could make the math work any better. As the ‘for lease’ signs started going up all around me on Robson, I saw the writing on the wall and had to ignore my ego and make the best decision for myself and for my son.”

While MacKay hasn’t decided what he will do next, he says that he doesn't plan on opening another restaurant in Vancouver anytime soon. Instead, he may head to the Prairies, where he has family in Regina, and plans on maintaining his presence in Canada’s culinary scene.

“Being front of house in my restaurants and on tour for the [Food] network and for sponsors taught me so much about Canadians and really opened my eyes to our food and restaurant culture—saturated in major centres and sadly under-represented in most secondary and smaller markets,” he said. “I’d like to see that change someday soon, but for now I will concentrate my attention on several culinary efforts that I’ve been chipping away at since winning Top Chef Canada and also catch-up on some consulting projects.”

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Comments (14) Add New Comment
Along with the rent - perhaps a little too fancy for tourists and a little too not Asian for the Asians. Because who the hell else is strolling the dazzling wonderland that is the Robson area?

Rating: -5
Pender guy
Too bad.
Ensemble was always enjoyable and seemingly busy.
Seems the expansion to the second location was the downfall.
Rating: +12
I'm going to miss eTap. It was my go-to restaurant for pre-movie drinks (and post-movie meals). Best of luck to the great staff and of course to Chef Dale.
Rating: -11
Pat Crowe
In Portland you can cut out the fancy linen, expensive grat for pretentious, mediocre service and food as in Vancouver and enjoy a great meal from one of the hundreds of downtown food carts for six bucks. People have woken up to the rip off that is the Vancouver/Victoria restuarant scene and voting where they will eat with their wallets. It's usually at home. That's not such a bad thing.
Rating: -7
dining in Vancouver is a major rip off, the only places i dine out are mom/pop home cooking places that offer cultural food at great prices with out the snobbery......places like earls and cactus club are what kill fine dining - people here think that is fine dining, because they pay for crap food in a can.

the successful restaurants are small, good prices, good food
Rating: -2
how can this be... i thought Vancouver was a world-class and had the Olympics everything should be booming. ..all that was just a big lie!!

nothing survives in Vancouver anymore, a terrible place to start a business, get a job or raise a family.......greedy landlords have killed Vancouver, people come and realize Vancouver is a disaster,, people are overtaxed and gouged by greedy sad!! Vancouver was once a great city
Rating: +17
Could it also be that MacKay might have been putting a little too much stock in his celebrity? People who care more about that stuff are probably in North Van and Whistler, not Robson. And Top Chef Canada ain't exactly Dancing with the Talented American Idols. Like that's worth much either.
Rating: -8
I agree with Pat Crowe when the weekend comes who wants to hit a nice restaurant, lounge or bar with great food, drinks and atmosphere when you can hit a foodcart for a $6.00 meal, walk 2 blocks in the rain before you find some bus stop to sit and eat your $6.00 meal and then be home in time to watch the latest hollywood release on your 14" computer screen.
Living the dream!
Rating: -9
that location on Thurlow is cursed.
Rating: -5
I both like as a fan and respect this Chef.

Too bad that he had to close shop.

Any smart restaurantuer could partners with him and make millions off his talent.

I look forward to see his next restaurant project, best wishes.
Rating: -2
Eustace Clarence Scrubb
Commercial real estate is collapsing on Robson and around the downtown area despite all the uptalk from the Downtown Business Association. Combine that with the totally ridiculous rents being charged by landlords, customers already being deep in debt, many (like me) without having received a raise for 10 years (thanks BC Gov.) and unwilling to pull out plastic to spent. Perhaps if the the money sucking Olympics pit had been in Salzburg Austria, or Korea the people here might have more disposable income now.

The BC Liberals pulled yet another bait and switch for which they have become so famous for, when they promised to keep the minimum wage at the lowest in Canada for the BC Restaurant Association, but instead smacked them hard with the infamous business destroyer known as the HST.

These restaurants were already way over priced anyway. Restaurant owners have many expenses beyond food cost that customers aren't aware of, but customers don't care about that either. Fancy restaurant food is just a lost leader to be covered by the vastly overpriced booze sales so being a "celebrity chef" is so yesterday as the over leveraged Mr. Mackay is now unfortunately learning at the school of hard knocks.

I wish you all the best of luck at your next endeavour Mr. Mackay and I am sure you will use this as a learning experience.

Rating: -6
Saw It Coming ...
Ate @ Ensemble once ... party of four. Smallest portions dished out in threes?! Rip-off prices & unmemorable food. Only surprised they didn't shut down sooner.

Tap Ensemble was basically your run of the mill pub, but had some potential ... unfortunately, there seemed to never be any incentive to bring the crowds in ... & was therefore always empty.

Oh, & BOTH locations were nightmares to locate/access (even by foot) ... some basic common sense could have been applied here.
Rating: +7
Mitch Romney
The cost of rent probably seal the deal. And i think that's the problem with vancouver. The cost of rent and maintenance probably skyrocket the price point of food for diners. I am seeing in the near future a special tax break on small businesses who decide they want to enter into hospitality industry in the downtown core. How else would patrons be able to afford to eat out and support their favorite local restaurant.
Rating: 0
Pat Crowe
You got that right, R2.
Screens a bit bigger tho.
And I cry myself to sleep.
Rating: +2
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