It’s official. Verve in Somerville is New Jersey’s best bar.
The bar/bistro in the county seat bested nine other finalists in our epic month-and-a-half-long search.
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.
But Verve stood out for its top-notch bartenders, inventive cocktails, convivial atmosphere, and food the equal of — or better than — any area restaurant.
“I’m in shock – really,” owner Rick St. Pierre said shortly after patrons erupted in shouts and cheers after our live reveal of the winner on nj.com.
“You couldn’t have picked a better guy,” said regular Paul Allena. “He gives so much back to the community. It’s a real honor for him.”
Call Verve the town’s nerve center. Lawyers and judges love the place — the county courthouse is right across the street — and so do blue-collar types. Dress is casual; you’ll feel at home no matter who you are.
Rick St. Pierre opened Verve 23 years ago. It didn’t take long for the cocktail lounge/restaurant to win the hearts, minds and wallets of those who live and work in the area.
“For us, it’s the local place,” said Dan LaMountain, one of a dozen patrons gathered at sidewalk tables when we made our final round visit.
“You come in here, you’re going to see Superior Court judges, high-profile lawyers, hard-working middle class (people), a little bit of everything,” said Eric Allena, Paul Allena’s nephew, who was among the festive faithful who joined in the celebration tonight. “They all come through that door.”
They remember Mack here. Former Verve bartender N. Bryan Mack, a spirits connoisseur and character known for his outsized white glasses, passed away in 2017; his various stylish hats hang above the bar, and The Mack Attack is one of three drinks made with Rabbit Hole spirits. It turned out to be my favorite drink of the ones sampled on our semifinal round visit, a tart, summery sensation, with Rabbit Hole Gin, agave, elderflower liqueur, lime and mint.
On our final round visit, St. Pierre handed out T-shirts. On one side was written, “Respect the Hat,” a tribute to Mack. On the other side: “The Best Bar Race to #1.” The words proved to be prophetic.
The second time was the charm for Verve; the bar was one of 10 finalists in our initial N.J.’s best bar showdown, in 2015. The Riverside Inn in Cranford was also a finalist in both competitions.
The bar hosts a dizzying array of special events, many for local causes. Miss VerveCage — a drag event billed as the “Drag of all Drags” — was held last week, in celebration of Pride Month. Negroni Week runs till July 1. A Crab Fest will be held next month to benefit Zufall Health Center.
Proof that Verve is not content with the status quo: It’s adding “zero proof” (non-alcoholic) drinks to its menu. Patrons are asked a series of questions to gauge their food and drink preferences, and overall mood. Then the bartender gets to work.
My non-alcoholic drink was made with dehydrated oranges and limes, ginger puree, Old Fashioned syrup, grapefruit, and pomegranate molasses. The result: one of the most refreshing drinks of this entire best bar mission. And I had hundreds of drinks. Staff photographer Ed Murray took awesome photos — and served as my designated driver.
With its semi-swanky cocktail lounge surroundings, it’s easy to overlook that Verve is also a restaurant. The Verve Burger, with aged white cheddar, was one of the best burgers of the nearly 50 I tried.
The steamed little neck clams bathed in a piquante pepper broth with stewed fig, and I couldn’t stop dipping the crostini into the luscious liquid. The Long Island duck breast, with poached apple, celery root puree, and raspberry and pink peppercorn jam, is highly recommended.
Don’t you dare skip dessert. The chocolate souffle, with house-made mint ice cream, is what sweet dreams are made of.
One more cool feature about Verve: the 1933 Room upstairs, with its handsome bar. It’s a cozy little hideaway; movies occasionally play on a screen.
“People think bars are about drinking,” said Mike Kerwin, who joined in the celebration. “It’s more than that. Verve is a fancy bar with good food but it has a great community vibe.”
Our relentless search for N.J.’s best bar began last month with a call for nominations. A total of 405 bars were nominated; every single one was put on a ballot. The top five vote-getters in the neighborhood bar category and the top four vote-getters in each of the other five categories — craft beer bar, sports bar, dive bar, wine/whiskey/martini bar and hotel or restaurant bar — became 25 of our semifinalists. I picked the other 25, for 50 semifinalists.
All 50 bars were visited over three weeks. I then picked 10 finalists, which were revisited.
Kudos to all of our finalists; you all are great at what you do.