SOMERVILLE, NJ – A noted New Jersey food critic and man about town has selected Verve Restaurant, Bar & Bistro as the Number One bar in all of New Jersey after sifting through 30,000 online votes for 405 nominees and an exhaustive road trip to visit the finalists.
But the accolades and kudos extend far beyond the doorway of the popular gathering spot on East Main Street to the other restaurants and trendy stores in the downtown district and surrounding towns in Somerset County, according to friends of Verve owner Rick. St. Pierre.
Peter Genovese, who makes his living wandering the state in a never-ending search for the best drinks, best pizza, best cheese steaks, best cheesecakes and other menu items, visited Verve Thursday night, and as soon as his presence was known, the supportive crowd knew their favorite gathering spot was the winner.
“It’s never easy picking a winner in one of our N.J.'s best showdowns. (This is the 10th one we’ve held.) Our 10 bar finalists came in all shapes, sizes and looks — neighborhood bars, dive bars, craft beer bars, wine/whiskey/martini bars,” Genovese wrote on nj.com.
“But Verve stood out for its top-notch bartenders, inventive cocktails, convivial atmosphere, and food the equal of — or better than — any area restaurant,” he added.
Verve's mixologists compete annually in competitions on the state and national level and have also earned the distinction as "The Best" over the years.
Those who have patronized Verve the past 23 years already know that.
“It’s the center of Somerville, so now it’s the center of Somerset County,” said Rich Reitman, a prominent public relations professional in Somerville and a frequent customer, as well as a contestant in Verve’s annual “Best Pulled Pork” and “Best Jambalaya” contests.
“It’s a very positive thing; anything that brings positive attention to the town is a good thing,” he added.
Natalie Pineiro, executive director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance, was full of superlatives for Verve and St. Pierre.
She made reference to a New York Times article from 23 years ago that suggested as goes Verve, so goes Somerville.
“As with any Downtown Special Improvement District, we know that these things take a long time,” she said. “I was talking to Rick not too long ago; The New York Times article said he was ahead of his time,” she added. “That’s indicative of the way these things work, it does take some time.
“DSA members past and present have done an amazing job pushing the downtown to a place where we’ve caught up to Rick’s ingenuity," Pineiro added. “The DSA is about connecting with people and experiencing downtown. This is a great example of the work we’ve done here, to create a unique experience that transcends shopping and dining.”
Former Somerville mayor and Somerset County Freeholder Brian Gallagher also praised St. Pierre’s broad vision and his consistent support of good causes, non-profits and fellow merchants in need of advice.
“Fantastic. Kudos to Rick. He’s done a fabulous job,’ Gallagher said. “His whole business model is ‘How can I give back to my community.’ That’s what makes him successful and that’s what attracts everyone his bar and what he’s created,” he added.
Verve celebrated its 23rd anniversary on June 20. That following week, Verve hosted a drag queen show to raise money for the LGBT community; later that week, there was a business luncheon with the executive director of NJ Transit. Comedy shows, live music, art exhibits, fundraisers for the Matheny School, and dozens of other events are always on the menu.
“I think this recognition is not only a feather in Rick’s cap, but for Downtown Somerville and Somerset County as well,” Gallagher said.
Mike Kerwin, CEO of the Somerset County Business Partnership and vice-chairman of the DSA, was also effusive in his praise of St. Pierre and the significance of the recognition.
“From a personal perspective, having members of a family that has had four generations in the tavern business I can appreciate the significance of getting this award,” Kerwin said. “It’s the culmination of the great work Rick has done to create a special place, a community treasure in my mind. It’s a. great experience, not so much drinking and eating, it’s just a great place to bring the community together.”
The Downtown Somerville Alliance and Somerset County will also derive benefits, according to Kerwin.
“From the DSA perspective, having the best of anything in Somerville is going to help us with our branding and marketing,” he said. “From the county tourism perspective, it sends a very strong message, that Somerset County has amenities that are world class; I say that without exaggeration. There’s a lot going on here; to me, Verve is obviously the best example of a lot of the amenities in the county. It will help to encourage people to take a look at what we have here.
“This is a win, win, win," Kerwin said.
Pineiro also looked at the bigger picture in terms of helping to boost the local economy.
“Moving forward it’s a huge distinction,” she said. “When we talk about creating Somerville as Somerset County’s Downtown, this is the kind of thing that people are looking for on social media and search engines, they search for “The Best." That distinction does carry over for the whole town, all the restaurants.
“When you talk about Rick and Verve, you have to know he lives, eats, works, breaths Somerville,” Pineiro added. “I’ve never met anyone who has worked harder, wore more hats and invested himself in more community organizations.”
Colin Driver, director of Economic Development in Somerville, works closely with St. Pierre on the board of Arts on Division, a non-profit organization that does much to encourage and promote the arts in the borough. St. Pierre is also the founder of what is now the Central Jersey Jazz Festival, which has grown from a one-day event in Somerville to a three-day celebration of live jazz performances over three days in Somerville, New Brunswick and Flemington in September.
“We know Rick has been around for 23 years and he’s been active in volunteering to make Somerville a great place to be to visit to dine out, to enjoy live entertainment and he’s constantly reinventing the restaurant trying to remain at the cusp of evolving trends and making it a destination,” Driver said.
“He’s achieved that,” he added.”This time he got the just desserts for diligently working to provide a unique experience in town. What it means to the town is that it highlights and underlines what the town has to offer; now that Verve is recognized as the number one bar in New Jersey, located in the county seat surrounded by other wonderful restaurants, it makes us more visible and will attract more people. Once they see what we have to offer they’ll come back again.”
St. Pierre is also a resident of the town, living on the upper floor of the three-story building with his wife Remy.
“The first thing I thought about this morning when I came downstairs is something Peter Palmer told me 20 years ago,” St. Pierre said. Palmer was a longtime Somerset County freeholder who retired a few years ago.
“Peter told me that everything you accomplish if you do it well, takes about 20 years,” he said. I think about these visionaries, the Mike Kerwins, the Brian Gallaghers, John Kitchen, Bernie Navatto. I thank them for setting the stage. They put the vision for Somerville in motion.
"We’re seeing the fruit of that vision,” he continued. "In a very unique, special way, the relationship between the policy makers and business owners enables visions to become real,” St. Pierre said.
“The state is recognizing Somerville as one of the best towns on multiple levels. It’s validating the vision of the mayor, the freeholders, the development that is coming into town and the new restaurants.
“We’re this region’s Main Street and the retailers are able to work with these guys to make things bigger and better for everybody,” St. Pierre said. “It’s an us movement as opposed to me or I movement. That’s what this is and that’s how we operate.”