In the end, there weren't enough people in Washington with expensive tastes for glorious foods.

So yesterday, three years after opening a branch here, the trendy New York-based catering firm Glorious Foods announced it will close its Washington operation Feb. 1.

"There is not the market we expected for our product," explained Philippe Maleval, director of the Washington office, in a prepared statement.

Or, as company spokeswoman Dane Towell put it: "Glorious Foods is the equivalent of haute couture with no ready-to-wear line to fall back upon."

Not affected by the firm's decision is its pricey Georgetown restaurant, which opened just a year ago.

"Glorious Cafe will continue the tradition of glorious food in Washington," Maleval said. He added that Glorious Foods "will still come down from New York for the very special party."

Known for creative, if expensive, cuisine, Glorious Foods seemed comfortably in the forefront of the city's caterers when it was chosen to prepare the inaugural luncheon at the U.S. Capitol a year ago. The firm was back in the news in November when the National Gallery of Art selected it to prepare the dinner for Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana, a plum assignment that brought it international media attention. The menu included such delicacies as quail and apricot mousse in pomegranate shells.

Even so and despite a busy year, Glorious Foods' owners, Sean Driscoll and Jean Claud Nedelec, began to realize that the market they aimed for -- the corporate and private clientele -- wasn't deep enough to justify staying on in Washington.

"In New York there are hundreds of clients, both at home and in the museums," said Towell, the firm's local director of public relations. "Washington just isn't an at-home market. Maybe part of it is because it's government here and fixed income, and also that people take pride in having a personal hand in their dinners."

Long a favorite of wealthy New Yorkers such as David Rockefeller, Lily Auchincloss, Liza Minnelli and Pat Buckley, Glorious Foods has an equally prestigious institutional clientele, including the Metropolitican Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the New York Public Library.

In Washington, at least, the year was a tough one for the catering industry, and competition was stiff. As the Goliath of the business, Ridgewell's, bought by Carson Pirie Scott & Co. in 1984, branched out and beefed up its staff, operations and facilities, two other long-established firms fared less well.

Columbia Caterers and Avignone Fre'res both filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, complaining that clients did not always pay their bills promptly although suppliers demanded cash on delivery.

Glorious Foods' problems, according to Towell, were the result of trying "to stay ahead of the trends in food." Producing innovative menus was costly, she said. A dinner could cost a client as much as $100 dollars a person, exclusive of wine, said another source.

The hotel boom, with expanded catering facilities, has had an effect on Washington's catering business, but so has growing competition in top-of-the-line cuisine, the kind identified with Glorious Foods, according to professional event planners.

Several of those event planners said yesterday they were dismayed but hardly surprised by the news of Glorious Foods' departure.

"I'm sorry the economics of their service made it impossible for them to continue here. They were very specialized and very top of the market. The kinds of menus they had were labor intensive, and I think it was difficult for them to survive given that labor intensity," said Mabel H. Brandon of Rogers and Cowan Inc.

"They raised the level of competition and that's true of anybody with a good quality product. But if they had been the only caterer both able to provide and charge the price commensurate with exceptional food, it would have been different," said Carolyn Peachey of Campbell, Peachey and Associates.

Even so, Mary Pettus of Mary Pettus and Associates voiced concern that the number of caterers to choose from is narrowing. "It makes my job more difficult," she said.