By Seth Daniel
About three minutes into a martini at the bar of the newly re-opened Aquitaine Restaurant on Tremont Street in the South End last week, a customer turned to his neighbor at the bar and proclaimed astonishment at the unrealized window in front of him.
“Hey, that’s a window behind the bar, not a mirror,” he said with sudden surprise. “I can see right out onto the street. Very cool.”
Such was the sentiment overall last week as the 19-year-old Aquitaine re-opened with a new, brighter look and a full upgrade of its vaunted space where many fine dinners have been had and many memories have been made.
Owner Seth Woods said that often times so much work goes into such a refurbishing effort that the final product never seems to completely satisfy. People often get that feeling when they remodel their kitchen or bathroom, or even put in a redesigned den. But Woods said it wasn’t the case with his signature restaurant, where he and his partners began building their group of restaurants.
In fact, it came out so well that it took him a few minutes to gather the words.
“I’m actually at a loss for words because it was such a collaborative effort,” he said. “It’s greater than the sum of its parts. So much work went into it – so many decisions were talked over and over and over that when you actually see it, you can hardly believe that after all that analysis it comes out so well in the end. I’m at a loss for words because I love how it turned out. Aquitaine is a living, breathing entity in the South End. For years people have lived their lives out here. It’s the place people have proposed marriage at or had their first date. There are so many memories here. We decided we had to do it because it was time. We’re glad we did it.”
The complete overhaul took less than five months, and Woods said that was because they coordinated many things prior to closing. They were ready with the design and ready to start construction when the door locked, and that’s because he said he didn’t like seeing an empty storefront.
“We didn’t want it to be unavailable and empty for the neighborhood,” he said. “Every day it was closed, I didn’t like the way it looked. I didn’t like seeing the empty corner. I lived in the South End a long time, on Union Park, before I moved out. I’ll probably end up coming back some day. The South End is just in my blood. I love the neighborhood and I don’t like looking at the restaurant closed. We planned a lot in advance and turned it around really quickly.”
Last Thursday evening, the restaurant did close once more to the general public, but that was simply to have a private reception to celebrate the opening with select friends and neighbors – as well as to mark Bastille Day for the French-influenced bistrot.
For those in the house from the South End, the reviews were nothing but good.
The bar has been moved from the front, right side of the house to the front, left side. The bar and it’s line of spirits and wines actually are stacked in front of the large window, meaning that customers can sit at the bar and view the action on Tremont Street from their seat.
“I never wanted to block the windows; everyone told me not to,” Woods said. “But I thought about it and envisioned sitting at the bar eating a Sashimi salad and drinking a glass of wine and being able to comfortably look out the window. That changed my mind.”
Overall, windows are the theme in the newer, lighter space, as a long line of windows up by the ceiling are now open and illuminating the dining room like never before. The windows had been blocked off and sealed previously. Few people even knew they were there.
There are also some very interesting and unique ceiling fans and a lighter, brighter painted surface on the walls – which nicely envelop new leather seats.
“The space is really glowing and brings the French flavor to it they wanted,” said Sergio Mazon of the South End.
“This is one of our mainstays and it’s exciting because we both live here and come here a lot,” said Rob Wilson of the South End. “There is a very cozy vibe to the bar and I’m actually looking forward to coming for lunch again. I work from home so this has always been a great lunch spot for me too.”
Ed LeMay lives just a few blocks over from Aquitaine, and he said he has come for many years. He is very excited because he runs an AirBNB location in his home and often sends customers to the restaurant. Now, he can tell them it’s the new and improved Aquitaine.
“I’m so glad it’s back,” he said. “I send a lot of my AirBNB clients over here and for the last four or five months I haven’t been able to recommend they visit Aquitaine. I think everything they’ve done is marvelous.”
Added regular customer Don Vincent, “I usually come here one or two times a week and I didn’t even know they had a window in the back until now. It’s a complete turnaround. It’s greater and better.”
Woods founded what is now the Aquitaine Group with the Metropolis Cafe in 1995. In 1998, he opened the original Aquitaine Bistrot on Tremont Street. Since then, he and his business partners Matthew Burns and Jeffrey Gates have opened two other Aquitaine locations and six other restaurant concepts, including Gaslight Brasserie, Cinquecentro and others in the South End.