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It’s almost lights up on VERS NYC, a new bar from Hell’s Kitchen native David DeParolesa that, after a mountain of bureaucratic red tape, is finally set to open just after PRIDE — a goal he has been dreaming of since the eerie early COVID-19 days.
It’s been a frustrating time for DeParolesa, who had hoped to open in time for this weekend’s PRIDE festivities, which he calls “the Black Friday of gay culture”. The complications of getting all approvals through, however, delayed the soft launch until next week, with a grand opening slated for mid-July — although, as he commented, “every day is like PRIDE month here in Hell’s Kitchen”.
The bar which has taken over the space that previously housed the popular Taladwat Thai restaurant, is a cheekily named ode to gay identity (“it’s a wink and a nod to those who know,” said DeParolesa) that’s focused as much on curated craft cocktails and elevated snacks as it is on providing a versatile variety of nightly entertainment. It has faced a long road to opening day, filled with the usual citywide challenges of appeasing the local community boards, the State Liquor Authority, and various permitting agencies.
“The construction industry is a Tower of Babble,” said DeParolesa. “There are so many people involved in every little thing, including the city agencies, and there are so many rules that are hard to anticipate. Those minute challenges slow the process, because you can’t build things ‘the easy way’, you can’t make changes without external approval, and you’ll also be charged in the process.”
Prior to living in New York, DeParolesa spent time living above a bar in Boston and serving on the community licensing boards there, so he was not unsympathetic to the concerns of local organizations, but he hopes to be a trusted partner in the small business landscape — “This is also my neighborhood, after all,” he said.
The CEO of GiveLively was not only familiar with the process of starting a business, but also armed with the skillset and team needed to enter the challenging hospitality world. In addition to drawing on his prior experience working for Food and Wine Magazine, he called upon the experts in his life — his boyfriend Aidan Wynn Davis, a vocal coach who previously worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant, his friend Andy Baraghani, former Bon Appétit food editor, and his friend and architect Douglas Kane, to band together and dream up a new kind of gay social club.
“The primary inspiration for opening VERS was my feeling of sadness after walking around 9th Avenue and seeing so many bars shut down permanently. To see these incredibly resilient businesses that had to close was heartbreaking, and I wanted to fill the void,” said the longtime Hell’s Kitchen resident.
“There are a bunch of things that we’re trying to solve with VERS — the reasons that many folks have stopped going out,” said DeParolesa. “There will be ample seating, you can get a decent drink at any hour, you should be able to hear the person next you, even if the space is lively.” He drew design and ambient inspiration from some of his favorite spaces in the neighborhood. “I love the Laurie Beechman Theatre,” he said. “You can get great food, great drink, great entertainment, all in one place.”
“I want to include drag performers, as well as expand to include the other fabulous entertainers in the neighborhood — new playwrights, DJs, and the Broadway community, ” said DeParolesa, who hopes that VERS will also be a platform for other kinds of entertainment “that we haven’t even thought of yet,” with future programming influenced by the vibrant talents of the Hell’s Kitchen community.
He’s been paying rent on the space since March and is looking forward to finally welcoming customers to the bar. “The thing that excites me the most is bringing in all of my friends from Hell’s Kitchen to host them, entertain them, and give them a place to feel like home — that would be so rewarding,” said DeParolesa.
The feeling is one shared by many of the area’s bar owners, eager to rebuild the LGBTQIA+ community’s yearly pilgrimage to Hell’s Kitchen during June and beyond. COVID-19, and its ever-adapting variants, a lack of federal hospitality relief funding, rising rent, labor, and supply costs, and a dearth of tourism have dealt significant blows to all of the neighborhood’s bars, many of which are LGBTQIA+ focused.
According to Bloomberg, by 2021 15 percent of US gay bars closed due to pandemic-related issues — making the opening of new spots like VERS and the reopening of beloved hangouts like Boxers and the 9th Avenue Saloon critical to reengaging the West Side’s — and the city’s — nightlife scene. Focusing on increasing the security of nightlife spaces, Hell’s Kitchen bar owners have also teamed up with local officials to promote safety guidelines ahead of PRIDE celebrations, hoping to encourage awareness after the still-unsolved death of Julio Ramirez.
The area’s proprietors are hopeful for a safe, celebratory, and prosperous PRIDE weekend and summer beyond, including DeParolesa. He hopes that VERS will grow into the kind of respected establishment where one never knows who will drop in — “the kind of place where maybe one day, we’ll have an immersive theatre workshop, and one day, we’ll have Christina Aguilera,” he mused.
“We want VERS to usher in the new age of queer spaces,” he added. “Spaces are no longer just a ‘gay men’s bar’ or a ‘lesbian bar’ — there’s a real versatility developing in the broader queer community that I believe is the future of how we’ll gather together. I want that diversity in VERS, and I believe it’s possible.”