French Twist: A Renovated Aquitaine in Boston’s South End

Text by Lisa H. Speidel Photography by Izzy Berdan

Here’s the thing about Aquitaine: it’s a wildly popular, successful, and beloved neighborhood bistro. For eighteen years, guests have been flocking to the restaurant for its modern takes on French fare—slow-roasted chicken, steak frites, escargots bourguignon—and bellying up to the cozy bar, pairing good conversation with a glass of Bordeaux or a South End Sidecar.

So when owner Seth Woods decided to update the interior, he had to tread carefully. Very carefully. “Aquitaine is part of the fabric of the neighborhood,” he acknowledges. “It means a lot to so many people; there have been anniversaries here, proposals here. . . .”

It was important that nostalgia not be lost and that regulars still feel at home in the new space. In short, Woods says. “I wanted it to be the same but different.”

Fortunately, Jeff Osborne and Amanda Hark of Hark + Osborne Interior Design knew exactly what he meant. Woods first met the duo when they renovated the Commonwealth Avenue apartment of his business partner Matt Burns. The restaurateurs then enlisted the designers to do a minor refresh of Metropolis, their Mediterranean cafe, and design La Motta’s, a new Italian concept. Delighted with the results and convinced that they were on the same page aesthetically, they called in the designers to do a gut-rehab of Aquitaine.

The first thing Hark and Osborne did was to assess the existing layout—a narrow space with a crowded corner bar that sat just five. Tapping into today’s trend of guests coveting their spot at the bar, they floated the idea of moving the bar to the other side of the restaurant. Not only would they gain more stools, but they would also be able to carve out a private dining room where the existing bar once sat.
By pushing the kitchen wall back just three feet, they created a twenty-seat private function space. Walled off with glass and blackened-steel framing, it can either host a special event or house regular reservations on busy nights.

Meanwhile, the bar became a showpiece just to the left of the entrance. Millworker Nick Doriss used French oak to fabricate the base of the bar, the shelving that holds spirits and glassware, and the decorative hand-carved panels that border the ceiling. The stools sit on classic black-and-white Parisian hex tile that delineates the bar and entrance from the dining room (a large “A” fabricated into the floor tile alerts regulars that they’re home). Woods insisted that the new bar top be similar to the old one. While the original was zinc, the designers opted for poured pewter, which has the same look but is a bit brighter. Other classics on that must-stay-but-update list? The signature burgundy banquettes and the globe-style lighting. “Some things that really resonate with people had to stay,” the owner says. “They carry this authenticity and grit that people are looking for.”

With an eye to freshening up the familiar, Hark and Osborne designed most of the lighting and sourced it via the Manhattan-based O’Lampia. Oversized globes dangle above the bar, and large five-orb chandeliers cast a warm glow on the dining room. Forgoing track lighting, the designers had O’Lampia craft brass mono-point lights, lending an older, more authentic look. For wall sconces, they went French retro: chic blackened-brass fixtures with an accent in the center of silver leaf and brass.

Rotating dual-head ceiling fans and thoughtfully chosen paintings, drawings, and illustrations tacked to the French oak wall paneling evoke an inviting Parisian salon. One of Osborne’s favorites, a beautiful line drawing offset by a simple linen mat and beveled wooden frame, appeared on an unfinished wall one day. Turns out, a workman had rescued the piece from the trash after someone in the condos above the restaurant had tossed it out.

This is just one example of the collaboration, both serendipitous and deliberate, that went into the success of the project. “We came up with a plan to meet every single week,” says Osborne. He, Hark, and Woods gathered with their team on Fridays at La Motta’s to parse everything from lighting, PR efforts, and the revamped menu that would roll out with the redesign, to nuts and bolts like installing a new HVAC system, adding a second bathroom, and closing off the kitchen to mitigate sound and cooking odors.

“So much energy and thought went into it, and you can really see the results,” says Osborne. “We were kind of designing it for ourselves: how can we make a place that’s really cool, a place where we want to hang out?”

So, did they answer that question?

“We were there last night,” he responds. •

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