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Leaving no empty spaces in the South End

As a South End restaurant closes, group moves to fill the space and keep the buzz going

Seth Woods (left) and Jeffrey Gates, partners at the Boston restaurant management firm the Aquitaine Group, stood at the old Rocca restaurant. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The worst kind of neighbor for a restaurant, according to Seth Woods, is a shuttered space. The emptiness has a ripple effect on the block.

“They make you struggle,’’ said Woods, a partner at the Boston restaurant management firm the Aquitaine Group.

That’s one of the reasons Woods and his partners decided to open a fifth South End restaurant this spring in the 5,500-square-foot location vacated by Rocca, an Italian restaurant that closed suddenly in December. The spot is a block from the group’s popular Gaslight Brasserie du Coin.

Having several restaurants in the same neighborhood - and in some cases, on the same street - might seem a risky strategy on the face of it, but it has been a good one for the Aquitaine Group. The addition on Harrison Avenue will not only solidify the firm’s presence in the South End, it will bring work and dollars back into the Boston neighborhood, where there has been a spate of restaurant closings in the last year.

Rocca’s departure was kind of like “a missing tooth,’’ leaving a large gap in the street’s business, said Nick Fedor, executive director of the Washington Gateway Main Street Inc., an area business development organization. “Being such a large and prominent space, it attracts customers from both the neighborhood and the surrounding areas of Boston and the region,’’ Fedor said. Rocca, like Gaslight, was one of the few restaurants in the South End that offered free parking, a perk the Aquitaine Group plans to keep.


Woods and his partners, Jeffrey Gates and Matthew Burns, have started remodeling the Rocca space. Dust hung in the air on a recent morning after a construction crew jackhammered the stone-tile floor. Stairs to the second floor already had been stripped to the metal base and walls bared in preparation for remodeling, which the partners say will be a “significant financial investment.’’


“We’re bringing it down to the canvas, down to the bare bones,’’ said Gates, as he likened the rehab to dating. “The way we look at it, you don’t want to go out with a new girl who is wearing your old girlfriend’s clothes.’’

What is now the Aquitaine Group was founded in 1995 when Woods opened Metropolis Cafe on Tremont Street, serving Mediterranean dishes. The firm’s roster currently boasts half a dozen restaurants, including one in Dedham and another in Chestnut Hill. In the South End alone, its restaurants do about $10 million in sales annually and employ roughly 140 people. The Italian restaurant will add another 60 jobs.

“We feel a responsibility to this neighborhood [and] when we have these restaurants closing in the South End, that’s jobs leaving,’’ Gates said, but “we can get involved and get things done.’’

The group’s steady expansion - including the eponymous Aquitaine Bar a Vin Bistrot on Tremont in 1998, Union Bar and Grille on Washington Street in 2003, and Gaslight in 2007 - is driven, in large part, by the partners’ love of the South End, where they have all lived at one time or another. There is also a belief in providing employees who want to build a career in the restaurant industry with options to advance. “We’ll continue to expand as long as we have people who need opportunity in our company,’’ Woods said.

That strategy appears to work for the Aquitaine Group, said Charles M. Perkins, founder of the Boston Restaurant Group Inc., a specialty commercial real estate firm. Running the Rocca space, he said, would “protect their flanks’’ against outside competition, and benefit Gaslight by bringing more people to the area.


“Basically, they’re going to be controlling that market in the South End,’’ Perkins said.

Chef Barbara Lynch - who has several venues each in the South End and South Boston - said locating in the same neighborhood makes sense to her. Take Lynch’s B&G Oysters and The Butcher Shop, which each occupy a corner on the intersection of Tremont and Waltham streets.

“The benefits are sometimes sharing stuff like, oh I ran out of ice . . . or storage space,’’ she said. “It’s like marketing myself [to diners]. You don’t have to go far.’’

At the Rocca location, Aquitaine Group partner Burns said his firm is still deciding what kind of Italian restaurant it will create. “Architecturally edgy and exciting - that’s a good way to put it,’’ he said, “bringing in elements that make it feel, I don’t know, authentic.’’

The group has a reputation for creating popular venues with cozy settings for diners to enjoy a well-priced meal.

Tiffani Faison, Rocca’s former chef, said the Aquitaine Group should fare well in the space because its partners are experienced and they have a good relationship with landlord, who also owns the Gaslight property.

“As long as it’s conceptionally different from what they’re [already] doing, which I understand it is, they’ll knock it out of the park,’’ Faison said.


Sean William Donovan, who frequents several Aquitaine Group restaurants, said he’ll be drawn to Harrison Avenue when the Italian restaurant opens. He still recalls the night several years ago when his cousins took him to Aquitaine on Tremont: walking through the burgundy velvet curtain at the entrance and into a warmly lit room, chatting with the wait staff, savoring the chicken entree.

“I remember the whole meal,’’ said the 23-year-old Donovan, who lives in the Back Bay, “because it was the first time I had been out in Boston, and they paid attention to the details from start to finish.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.