The Swan family already owns five popular restaurants in Rochester, but it's their newest spot, Vern's, that feels the most personal. Co-owned by siblings Jon, Ashley, and Paulina Swan and barman Casey O'Mara, the recently-opened restaurant and bar is named after the siblings' grandfather, Vern Swan, and inspired by childhood visits to their grandparents' home in Jamestown, New York.
Jon Swan fondly remembers his grandfather sitting in a blue La-Z-Boy recliner, stirring a glass of Scotch with his pinkie finger, while his grandmother tended to a pot of homemade sauce. Swan wanted a restaurant with the same warm, hospitable atmosphere: "To me, that meant grandma's house," he says.
But creating that inviting atmosphere wasn't easy. Patrons who visited 696 Park Avenue when it was home to Thai restaurant Esan might not recognize the space now. "Every surface, we changed," Swan says of the extensive renovation, adding that 19 dumpsters were needed to haul away debris during the work. Among the biggest projects were restoring the transom windows on the front facade, and uncovering the original patterned tin ceilings.
Post-renovation, Vern's is a cozy, hip space, highly conducive to lingering. The front room is snug but welcoming, done up in calming earth tones with vintage accents. What looks like retro floral wallpaper in shades of mustard, poppy, and split pea, is actually a mural painted by local artist Thievin' Stephen. Dominating the front room is a handsome marble-top bar, which formerly resided in Restaurant 2Vine. A small set of stairs skirts the open kitchen and leads to the rear dining room, removed from the hubbub of the bar and painted a dusty pink. Outdoor seating is available on the front sidewalk as well as on the back patio.
Swan describes the cuisine at Vern's as "Italian-inspired, modern American" and estimates that the menu will change up to eight times a year, or twice each season. The small, open kitchen houses a wood-fired grill and Neapolitan-style pizza oven. Pizzas at Vern's are made with the same dough used at Swan Dive, though the pies will have more classic toppings, Swan says.
Like its sister establishments -- Roux, Dorado, Ox and Stone, The Daily Refresher, and Swan Dive -- Vern's boasts a strong cocktail program. The menu, developed by O'Mara, is inspired by riffs on classic cocktails, and includes several low-alcohol and no-alcohol options. Amaro, an Italian herbal liqueur, features prominently. Can't decide what to order? Select the "Wing It" option and let the bartenders mix you up something surprising. The wine list is comprised exclusively of natural wines, which are typically grown by small-scale producers in sustainable or biodynamic vineyards, and fermented without added yeasts or additives. Vern's also offers an array of beers, many of them from local or regional breweries.
I visited Vern's on a recent Wednesday evening around 6 p.m., less than a week after its grand opening. Every seat at the bar was occupied, the rattle of cocktail shakers and the murmur of the after-work crowd making for a lively buzz. My friend and I were seated in a quiet back corner in the main dining room, which steadily filled up around us.
I began with the Fluffy Greyhound: vodka, grapefruit, and mint-topped with a blended citrus "fluff," which added bitter notes of orange peel to the sunny concoction. My friend chose the chocolate Boulevardier, a sumptuous take on the original with a dash of chocolate bitters for extra richness.
On the starters menu, my eyes were immediately drawn to the fried Castelvetrano olives. Stuffed with 'nduja, a spicy Italian pork salume, the firm, buttery olives exploded with irresistible salty flavor. Next, we ordered a salad of plump, snappy, blanched green beans with halved cherry tomatoes, sprinkled with crumbly ricotta salata; a modest splash of herb vinaigrette allowed the local produce to shine.
For our mains, we split an order of cacio e pepe as well as the grilled arctic char from the specials list. Cacio e pepe, a classic Italian dish that translates literally to "cheese and pepper," looks to be a menu mainstay at Vern's. The fresh pasta, coated generously in a silky cheese sauce, was a simple, comforting dish I can picture myself ordering at any time of year. The grilled char fillet, served on a bed of pearl couscous flecked with sundried tomatoes, was wonderfully silky and tender beneath an ultra-crispy skin. We finished the meal with vanilla panna cotta, topped with zingy lemon curd and blueberry compote.
After dinner, we grabbed two comfortable leather stools at the bar to close the night with a couple of low-ABV cocktails. I ordered the Hours in the Garden, a refreshing blend of white vermouth, gin, cucumber slices, and salt. My friend opted for the Manhattan Re-wind, a low-alcohol interpretation of the original, which she described as balanced and not overly sweet.
Just past 8 p.m. the lights dimmed, seeming to signal a tone shift from dinner to nightlife -- a transition Vern's, similar to its sister establishment Ox and Stone, does masterfully. Behind the bar, the rattling cocktail shakers were still going strong, with Swan himself mixing, pouring, and chatting with patrons. As we turned to leave (it was, after all, a Wednesday), our seats were quickly snapped up by patrons standing nearby.
"I love the chaos, that people want to be here," Swan remarked. "It's part of the fun of being out and being social."