If weddings and New Year parties are the only times in your life that call for Champagne, Jen Pelka has a new bar that will quickly change your mind.
For me, Champagne turns any moment into a celebration. It can be a picnic or picking up a friend at the bus station. It’s just a really good way to turn up the volume on a good time.
We are inclined to agree. To ensure that those good times keep rolling, Pelka took a radical step: Earlier this year, she opened The Riddler, a new Champagne bar in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley.
Pelka designed The Riddler to reflect her philosophy: It’s a high-low haven, with brass-rimmed tables and a glam marble bar, where vintage bubble is as likely to be paired with pigs in a blanket as it is with caviar.
Our goal is to take Champagne off its pedestal
Pelka packed the diminutive, century-old space with nods to the wines that inspired it. There are nearly 50 silver-plated and pewter Champagne buckets collected from flea markets and online auctions. Pelka takes special care to choose a chiller that matches the personality of each guest.
I feel pretty strongly that we don’t just grab one off the shelf. If there’s a woman who is very stylish, we’ll give her a beautiful hand-carved bucket with all these gorgeous inlaid flowers. But then, for a dude, I might choose something more restrained.
Even the name of the place is borrowed from one of the most important players in Champagne making. Since the 19th century, riddlers have been employed by Champagne houses to hand-rotate bottles each day, loosening sediment and capturing it in the neck so that the finished wine is crystal clear.
The Riddler spotlights over 100 true Champagnes, an impressive selection of global sparklers, and a small number of still wines from California and France. To keep all that fizz in check, there’s food. “I do love caviar with Champagne, but my absolute favorite thing to pair with it is popcorn. It’s like a pop and a pop…pops all around,” says Pelka, who installed a free, self-serve popcorn station near the bar, with 12 shakers of toppings that range from “Everything” (sesame and caraway seeds with garlic salt) to “Mexican Corn” (chipotle chile powder, lime and white cheese powder). “Another of the quintessential pairings with Champagne is French fries, but we can’t have a fryer in the restaurant. We can, however, have a waffle iron,” she adds. And thus, The Riddler’s signature Tater Tot waffle was born.
The minuscule kitchen, led by Shannon Waters, serves Tater Tot Waffles in cast-iron skillets, topped with things like smoked salmon with dill, creme fraiche and caviar, and soft poached egg with shaved truffles. There’s also pigs in a blanket that are wrapped in buttery puff pastry and sliced with a honey-mustard brown butter glaze.
Dorothy Parker once wrote that sufficient Champagne was one of the least attainable things in life. Pelka is happily proving her wrong.
A Champagne Bar
528 LAGUNA STREET, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94102