By Danny Klein
For adjacent concepts don’t share all that much in common. The clientele won’t overlap on a typical night and visiting guests tend to remain in one location. In Jacques Bezuidenhout’s mind, that’s a sign of just how successful the hybrid space, located in San Francisco’s thriving Mid-Market district, has been since opening in May 2015.
“There’s not a lot of crossover, which is cool. I think that’s it’s nice how we’ve differentiated them,” says Bezuidenhout, a local icon in the city’s beverage scene.
Forgery was designed as a neighborhood bar, while Verso is a nightclub with bottle service and an event space capable of hosting more than 400 guests. They do share a similar ethos, however. Behind their unique customer bases, Verso and Forgery both spent their first year adjusting to the elevated standards of Bezuidenhout and his partner, Ken Luciano, who hails from the PlumpJack Group. That meant offering something beyond the standard, in each space respectively.
Getting there took some time, Bezuidenhout explains. “In the beginning, getting your team to click is always a little bit of a challenge. You interview as best as you can and at the end of the day you have to put a bunch of people together and see how it goes,” he says. “In any business you manage, you always have one or two people who come in and move on. Right now, we just really have a solid team. All their personalities click really well. … I would say it was by Month 2 or 3 that we started to get it. You start to see whose personalities fit together. When we were hiring we were really careful not to mess it up. It’s always a challenge in the beginning.”
Then there are the drinks themselves, of course, which had to live up to the reputation of its owner’s name. Bezuidenhout is a founding member of the San Francisco chapter of the US Bartenders’ Guild and has been named the “Best Bartender in San Francisco” from Tasting table and “Ambassador of the Year” from Tales of the Cocktail. He’s also served as a judge for the city’s Spirits Competition and its Ultimate Beverage Challenge.
The plan was for Forgery’s upscale, yet casual vibe to flow right into the beverage, Bezuidenhout says, and that started with appearances. The space was a former glass blowing studio and printing press, which provided an enviable blueprint to build a bar. There’s exposed brick, a natural wood bar, and industrial metal accents throughout. “At the end of the day, we let the space be more of what was already there,” he notes. “Essentially, it was left alone. There weren’t any real design points.”
“We wanted to do everything right,” Bezuidenhout adds. “Great wine by the glass. Great beer by the glass. We want to keep the cocktails interesting, but fun and very approachable.”
Forgery features more than 300 spirits along with a rotating and innovative cocktail list. Some selections include the Forged & Bound—Wild Turkey 101 Rye, Amaro Montenegro, and Green Chartreuse, and the Gran Cobbler with Gran Lusso, Absinthe, Fresh Raspberries, and Lime. The beverage menu is divided into four books: Book 1—Forgery Originals (such as the Forged & Bound); Book II—Classics & Twists (where the Gran Cobbler can be found); Book III—Friends (such as the Yellow Submarine made with Boodles Gin, Fino Sherry, and Galliano; and Book IV—Sherry (the Nutty Cobbler, Amontillado, Cynar, Apple is an example).
There’s also locally sourced charcuterie, which Bezuidenhout says was an important factor in the concept’s early success. “It took a few weeks to get our charcuterie and cheese in place and that made a really big difference in our business. People love cocktails, but they’re strong. And if you don’t have any food to go with it, they tend to move on to somewhere else.”
Juices are freshly squeezed and everything is hand-made. While that isn’t exactly a defining factor in today’s craft bar culture, it can be an overlooked one in the club arena. Bezuidenhout, who admits he isn’t a “club guy,” wanted to flip that stereotype.
“When we do go to clubs, the one thing we pick up on is that at a lot of places you just feel like you’re being dodged,” he says. “It’s bottle service and everyone feels like they want to be in the club, and sometimes clubs get away with that kind of attitude. The idea that they’re we’re doing you a kind of service by you being here. And you’re spending a ton of money.”
At Verso, Bezuidenhout stressed the quality points. The glassware is top notch; ice and mixers, again featuring fresh-squeezed juice, are far from mere afterthoughts. Guests can still order club staples, like Vodka Red Bulls, but, “We’ll give you a great vodka Red Bull. We’ll get it to you quickly, and with a smile and a thank you. Our folks will really look after you,” Bezuidenhout says.
“We want you to feel like you’re having a great, sophisticated time, like you should be,” he continues. “One where you can wake up the next morning and say, ‘I had a good time. I’m happy with the money I spent.”
The 14,000-square-foot space has a 20-foot-long white Carrera marble bar, allowing for an adequate space to order drinks. There are also extensive Champagne options and a rotating lineup of disc jockeys. In its first year, Verso has welcomed several celebrities, including two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors and his wife, Ayesha Curry, for their joint birthday party.
Forgery can seat 100 in its more intimate 2,000 square feet. In April, the group also opened Wildhawk in San Francisco’s Mission District. The modern-day pub specializes in handcrafted cocktails as well, along with a range of specialty vermouths, including a page dedicated to vermouth-forward cocktails such as the Vermouth No. 1 with Martini Ambrato, Grapefruit, Pineapple Gum, and Hops.
“For us, it’s been a great year,” Bezuidenhout says. “You’d think that since we’ve opened so many bars that sooner or later it would be a smooth thing. But every opening presents new problems and new stories. We’re really happy with where we’re at right now and we’re just going to continue to get better.”