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Betsy Block

Boston Globe

The Big Night

This summer, cameras captured the tortured opening of a New York City restaurant by chef Rocco DiSpirito. The show, aptly called "The Restaurant," was rife with made-for-TV contrivances: a poorly trained (albeit photogenic) wait staff mugging for the cameras; an egomaniacal and perfectly tousled chef; an absurd timeline for opening (seven weeks, which included locating and renovating a site).

Here in Boston, a team of restaurateurs was busy with an opening of its own. The Aquitaine Group, comprising Seth Woods, Jeffrey Gates and Matt Burns, started planning a restaurant on Washington Street in the South End a year and a half ago.

Seths always ready to do something new, says Gates, who recently joined ranks with them as a part owner. Matt had to be convinced.
With scores of new luxury condominiums going up on once-quiet Washington Street, the location is up and coming, says Woods.

Despite the absence of network cameras, the Aquitaine Group experienced plenty of drama in the months leading up to their latest debut. In fact, this article was originally scheduled to run in mid-August, while the show was still airing on NBC.

But the doors remained shut until just yesterday, when Union Bar and Grille finally opened for business. Even under the best of circumstances, opening a restaurant is not for the faint of heart.

At the end of July, Union is still a dusty, sweltering construction site, full of bags of cement, stacks of wood and not much else. Originally slated to start serving up contemporary American food less than three weeks from today, construction delays have resulted in a pushed-back opening date of early September. The rooms that ostensibly will become a beehive of commerce in a couple of months are full of possibility, but not much else. For the moment, Union is more of a seedling than a plant.

The three men responsible for this mess, Woods and his partners, Gates and Burns, arent fazed at all (Woods, obviously an optimist, is leaving soon for a two-week vacation with his family). The partners have, collectively, five decades of experience in the restaurant industry. Theyre players, and running restaurants is their game.

In a way, the concept for Union took root more than three decades ago, when Woods asked for a lobster meal instead of presents for his fourth birthday. Woods, now 35, along with his partners, owns and manages Aquitaine bistro and Metropolis Caf on Tremont Street, Aquitaine Bis in Chestnut Hill, and Armani Caf on Newbury Street. Union may not look like much at the moment, but thats the way it is with new restaurants. Delays are de rigueur, and snafus are a daily special.

The three of them know as well as anyone that owning a restaurant requires a directors view of the big picture, a fashionistas understanding of style, and a comedians humor and timing. Restaurateurs also need a psychologists understanding of people and an obsessive attention to detail. Restaurants depend on huge teams to get them going and keep them afloat  architects and designers, wine dealers and food purveyors, electricians and plumbers, not to mention the staff in the front of the house and the kitchen. If any one element falters, things can fall apart fast.

Even restaurants run by experienced professionals endure crises, especially in the beginning. Thats why some restaurant reviewers and diners in the know tend to stay away those first few weeks when service glitches and menu failures still have to be smoothed out. Opening when they werent quite ready has happened to all of us, believe me, says Gates. You just cant let the customers know that.

Of course, the unexpected can still crop up after that: say, when a cook shows up to work drunk, the heat goes off on a bitter winter day at lunchtime, or the chef quits in the middle of Saturday night service (all of which have happened in Boston-area restaurants, along with kitchen fires and personal injuries too numerous to count). Peter Christie, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, cites a study of his groups restaurants which found that at the end of five years, two-thirds were either no longer in business or had changed hands.

Two weeks have gone by and some progress has been made, but Union is still a shell. The opening has been pushed back to Sept. 22. Reality happened, says Gates with a laugh. Still, September is a date they can live with. Independent restaurants almost never open on schedule, and Christie cites a host of reasons why, but the biggest by far is the bureaucracy that restaurateurs must navigate in order to acquire liquor, building, and occupancy permits.

However, says Gates, while delays may be common, they have no bearing on a restaurants fate. He should know  at 42, Gates has worked in the industry for 23 years, running the front of the house at such respected Boston institutions as Davios and Mistral, and helping open five restaurants. (Union is his sixth). He says that what determines a restaurants eventual success is whether it has what he calls a story. The story for Metropolis Caf is cozy Italian trattoria; for the two Aquitaines, its French bistro. Gates, Woods and Burns strive for that elusive balance between trendy and timeless by serving uncomplicated food at reasonable prices.

This is what Woods set out to do when he first opened Metropolis Caf in the mid-90s and it's still his goal. At all Aquitaine Group locations, the food is consistently good; at Metropolis, the low prices  appetizers are under $10  and entrees under $20  come as a pleasant surprise. As for the Armani Caf, the Aquitaine Group has been lauded for improving the service and food since they took it over a year and a half ago.

On the down side, success may have come at a price for Woods; former and even current employees say he can be hot-tempered, overly critical, and a penny pincher (all spoke on condition of anonymity).

When youre the CEO, you cant always be the nice guy, Woods says. The way he sees it, he has worked hard to make his way up the ladder, one time literally falling asleep on a staircase he was so exhausted from a double shift. Now hes proud to be the head of a corporation, not a toiling chef.

Burns, 33, who worked at Friendlys in his high school days, was general manager of the Armani Caf before joining Woods management team. He learned Spanish to communicate better with the kitchen staffs, but Gates is the one who seems most respected by the rank and file.

Its not surprising that a group of about 200 employees turns up a handful who complain about the bosses. Perhaps, as their longtime publicist Chris Haynes suggests, some of their worst critics are merely jealous. Gabriel Frasca, who worked as a line cook at Metropolis and was the chef at Aquitaine Bis, says Woods and Burns are extremely good at what they do, and theyre very good to the people who are on their side.  Seth is a classic driven guy, wonderfully obsessive. And Matt has a certain amount of finesse that Seth doesnt have.

They do watch every nickel and dime, but the profit in restaurants is in nickels and dimes. Nickel-and-diming is practically a compliment.

Gates is standing in front of a crowd of about 20 waiters introducing Dan Michaud of Ruby Wines, a wine and liquor importer. Its hard to hear him over the buzz saws and banging hammers; as Michaud speaks, clouds of dust waft up from the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, dirtying the windows. The dining room still lacks a floor and tables and banquettes are strewn about the room, but the bones are finally in place. Things are shaping up. Nearly three weeks of training, originally scheduled for mid-August, started two days ago. During this time, Gates will cover everything from phone etiquette to computer systems to wine education. If all goes as planned, hopefully it wont be like a brand new restaurant, Woods says later with a laugh.

Today, training gets heady when the discussion turns to Prohibitions effect on the history of wine consumption in the United States. How does this rather intellectual lecture relate to the job at hand namely, training waiters? Gates says the wait staff needs to understand such details so they can become "ambassadors of the Union story": an American bistro with an American wine list. Strangely, as he talks about the unpleasantness of phylloxera (a root louse that destroyed three million acres of European vineyards in the 1800s), Gates enthusiasm is infectious. A number of staffers say that the opportunity to work with him is what has drawn them to Union. Hes an amazing manager, says server Bernadette Lord, who has worked with Gates before. He was recommended to me by a friend, adds Julia Hodges, who hasnt.

The three owners are getting excited as the finish line comes into view.Boston loves chef/owners, Woods had said earlier this summer, though he also admitted, Im much more of a businessman than a chef now. These days, his chefs de cuisine are the ones literally stirring the pots at his five restaurants. Woods, a 1989 graduate of the esteemed Culinary Institute of America, was named a rising star chef in 1996 by the James Beard Foundation. He maintains creative control over all his menus; his straightforward food philosophy shines through in all his restaurants, where clean, classic flavors reign. Not even his detractors dispute Woods cooking skills -- or his ability to hire talented chefs.

So, you wanna hear about [Friday]? Gates asks, then bursts into laughter. Thats when Union finally received its hard-fought certificate of occupancy. Gates grabbed the just-signed paper and rushed over to the Health Department to request a final inspection, arriving exactly six minutes before the department closed for the weekend. Union passed an overtime health inspection conducted later that day, so were a restaurant! Were official. Which means they wont have to push back their opening date again.

Today, Sept. 28, theyre having the first of three mock service dinners that will be held before the grand opening on Oct. 1. These dinners are dress rehearsals for the staff, with invited guests as the lucky audience. Woods and the kitchen staff have been putting in 16-hour days since Monday, making stocks, simmering sauces, and butchering meat so they would be ready to use tonight.

The brown paper came off the huge picture windows a week ago, providing a gorgeous nighttime view of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The dining room is finally done, and its all black leather banquettes and mirrors  masculine modern chic. Service is both efficient and warm, which isnt surprising given the amount of training the staff has been through.

Dinner starts with a tiny skillet of dense, delicious corn bread; pastry chef Joshua Steinberg, who developed the recipe, says his secret ingredients are molasses and buttermilk. The clam chowder has a light cream base with a  small hill of diced potatoes, tender clams, smoky bacon, and fresh thyme. Bourbon cream is luscious with the sirloin, and a delicate, white-and-yellow lemon meringue cake is a last, loving nod to summer. Other dishes still need some work (for example, the swordfish is undercooked), but for a new staff cooking in a new restaurant, things are looking good. Thats because, says Steinberg, weve done plate-ups three nights in a row before tonight. Seth is really good at organization.

Tonight, Woods is in the eye of the kitchen storm, cooking and critiquing each plate that goes out, but soon enough chef de cuisine Stephen Sherman will take over, and Union will have hit its groove.

Gates had originally intended to fill about two-thirds of the dining rooms 80 seats tonight, but by 9 p.m. the place is full, and people are starting to walk in off the street to check it out. Union has been serving food for less than four hours and the buzz has already begun. There are still a few kinks to work out: the music is too loud, the coffee is lukewarm (though the server graciously keeps bringing more until he gets it right), and one waiter reports that the kitchens timing is a bit off. But thats exactly what these mock service nights are for. As Burns says, Im sure that there were imperfections with your meal, but typically, [first nights] are a disaster and everyone panics. This is really smooth.

When they started work on this space last April, there was only a sub-floor in place. (Now the floor is a beautiful, multicolored slate.) Theyve literally built Union from the ground up. Im not saying success is a shoo-in, Gates had said this summer. But the jitters have already passed. Woods, ever ambitious, is already thinking about the groups next projects. (He says that all of their venues have continued to make money despite both war and the lengthy recession.) And Union already feels like it has the Aquitaine Groups stamp on it. But can they parlay their experience and drive into a profitable restaurant empire? Or do the mighty always fall? Time will tell.