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Jul21

Somerville’s Verve Bistro celebrates 20th anniversary

After two decades in business, Rick St. Pierre, owner of Verve in Somerville, is just getting started

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
Verve Bistro, Bar & Lounge was opened on June 20th, 1996 by proprietor Rick St. Pierre, a Franklin Township native and current Somerville resident
The 120-seat restaurant offers a combination of classic northern and cherished comfort foods made with French techniques
“Running a restaurant like Verve “is a vocation, not an occupation, and you have to be dedicated to the time, craft, and discipline required and to learning every day.”

SOMERVILLE – As proprietor Rick St. Pierre tells it, he didn’t necessarily found Verve in Somerville in 1996, but rather the now 20-year-old restaurant “revealed itself to me.”

A current resident of Somerville, the Franklin Township native earned his stripes in the restaurant industry making sauces and washing pots as a teenager and moved on to fine dining opportunities during his years at Rutgers University, where he graduated with a degree in political science and English. He later held management and service roles at such renowned Princeton-based restaurants as The Nassau Inn and Lahiere’s.

Able to apply his social and educational training to the restaurant business, “I’ve worked as everything from a bartender and front-of-house manager to sous chef,” the polished 53-year-old said. “I wear all hats and work hard to bring it all together in a fine way.”

By his mid-30s, however, St. Pierre felt the need to spread his wings.

“In 1994 I was working at the Nassau Inn and helped launch Terra Momo in Princeton when I realized it was time to open my own business,” St. Pierre said.

Locating to Somerville, however, was unexpected and serendipitous.

A fan of supporting local businesses, “I happened to be shopping in Somerville for the holidays that year and I remember seeing the building at 18 E. Main Street up for sale,” he recalled, “but I assumed I couldn’t afford it.” Returning to Somerville the following week to pick up the gifts he’d ordered the week before, he saw a foreclosure sign in the building’s window and took steps to meet the owner, John Kitchen.

“He was a major icon and influencer in the Somerset County area who saw promise in me,” St. Pierre said, “and he worked with me to offer me the building affordably in an ‘as is’ condition.”

Previously housing various iterations of The Court Café since the 1980s, including a more recent incarnation that had been considered one of the top small fine-dining restaurants in town, the century-old building, once a Prohibition-era bar, had been closed for three years when St. Pierre bought it.

“I was in by February 1996 and lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into breathing life back into the building, which required four months of dedicated effort and investment to redo, renew, and refurbish,” he said. “We officially opened on June 20, 1996 and I’ve worked hard since then so that they wouldn’t kick me out,” he laughed. “As I see it, our building has always been a meeting place for the area and has had a life of its own. I’m just its current caretaker.”

‘As Goes Verve’

Then and now, St. Pierre’s vision has been to offer a main street bistro with a combination of classic northern and cherished comfort foods using French techniques as a core of the craft.

“Our concept hasn’t changed that much over 20 years – the left side of the menu consists of 10 to 12 appetizers, soups, and salads and the 10 to 12 entrées on the right include popular proteins like tuna, salmon, duck, and steak,” he said. “I always wanted to make food that people recognize using techniques that both impart and bring out nature’s flavors without over-complicating things so that we can produce an effervescent abundance of comfort on a plate. Even when making a standard Caesar salad, for example, we use crisp romaine, fine shaved Parmesan, and brioche croutons served on a chilled plate to keep that traditional Caesar memorable and relevant.

“Whether it’s our lobster risotto, duck confit, or New York strip steak with frites, we work to make everything the best, with a twist,” he said.

According to St. Pierre, the initial challenge 20 years ago was in introducing the more upscale setting, cuisine, and price points of Verve to family-casual Somerville.

“The question always was, ‘can this French bistro justify a $10 salad or a $35 steak?’” he said. “When the New York Times reviewed Verve in 1996, they weren’t sure Somerville was ready for us, but they and other subsequent reviewers confirmed that we were worth the trip,” he said. “We’ve since been excited to be part of the upscale development and reinvestment in the town,” he added in a nod to the Times’ comment that ‘as goes Verve goes Somerville.’

Along with a commitment to serving the highest quality cuisine, St. Pierre has been dedicated to using Verve as a platform to serve the community.

“No one does it alone and we need each other,” said St. Pierre, a staunch community partner who serves on the Executive Committee of the Downtown Somerville Alliance, is a member of the Somerset County Regional Partnership, and supports a variety of local organizations including the Law Foundation, the Zufall Health Center, the PeopleCare Center for Nonprofits, the Matheny Medical and Educational Center, and more. “I instinctively see opportunities to help bridge different groups and have always wanted to do as much as possible to keep people talking,” he said.

Among those with whom he’s made an indelible connection is Marie Hughes, executive director of the PeopleCare Center for Nonprofits, Inc. in Bridgewater.

“I’ve known Rick for 15 years and he’s always been extremely generous about supporting fundraising events run by several of our nonprofit tenants,” said Hughes. “He’s been an important participant in our own annual fundraiser, A Taste of Somerset, for 20 years and has also served as a member of our Taste committee for the past several years, during which time his expert advice has always proved invaluable. Rick represents the consummate community partner, one whose generosity is well documented by many organizations throughout Somerset County, and the PeopleCare Center sincerely thanks Rick and congratulates him and Verve on their 20th anniversary.”

636040047069687894-MRS-7099Another example of St. Pierre’s community-connection work is the restaurant’s upcoming annual Crabfest, running from Thursday, July 21, to Saturday, July 23. The menu will feature Maryland hard shell and soft shell crabs along with specialty cocktails and more, and a part of the proceeds will benefit Zufall Health, which operates community health centers providing medical and dental services to the working poor, uninsured, and underserved. Zufall has centers in Morristown, Hackettstown, Flemington, Somerville, West Orange and Newton, and on its Highlands Health Van. For more information, visit zufallhealth.org.

Josh Falzone, a CIA graduate who trained at The Bernards Inn in Bernardsville and headed up the kitchen at Verve before joining Duke Farms as its consultant chef this spring, also feels grateful to St. Pierre for his support, guidance, and the shining example he’s set for those around him.

Susan Bloom, Correspondent / MyCentralJersey.com (Photo: Mark R. Sullivan/Staff Photo)