—A beloved San Francisco Champagne bar sets up shop in the West Village.
What many of us admire about Champagne are the feelings associated with it—more than the taste. It’s often characterized as the official special occasion drink, be it the accompaniment to a sappy wedding toast or an extravagant New Year’s Eve party. Champagne brings forth a kind of escapism we would rarely indulge in every day, earning its reputation as a traditional ceremonial spirit. However, some could argue that any night out is worth celebrating, and that Champagne itself is way more approachable than we’re making it out to be.
Located on a charming corner spot in the West Village sits The Riddler, a quaint 700-square-foot Champagne bar (and top-rated San Francisco import). Although the space emits opulence with its chic black-and-white color scheme, intricately gold leafed ceiling and an abundance of reflective brass surfaces, The Riddler aims to take the fuss out of what we know to be the fanciest of sparkling wines.
Owner Jen Pelka chose the name specifically for its humble history dating back to the 19th century. A “riddler” was a Champagne houses caretaker who was tasked with the not-so-glamorous job of rotating each bottle by hand every day in order to keep the sediment from settling into the neck of the bottle, resulting in a crisp and clear final product. Today, the arduous yet essential process is carried out predominantly by machines, but was originally invented by 27-year-old Madame Clicquot—better known as the widow (“veuve”) who inherited Veuve Clicquot and revived her husband’s declining Champagne empire.
Pelka plays with this approach of contrasting high-low throughout The Riddler, noting that she wanted to “create a place that is both a neighborhood hangout and a wine-lover’s destination.” For the interior, she tapped San Francisco-based hospitality design studio ROY, who also worked on the West Coast location. Baring visible similarities, The Riddler features an abundance of reclaimed materials including 100-year-old French lighting fixtures, a vintage hostess stand and reupholstered black leather booths. Also on display is Pelka’s own collection of antique Champagne buckets that vary from mixed-metal to crystal-encrusted, and are uniquely chosen for each guest based on personality upon arrival.
“When we started working with Jen on this project we knew each and every moment, interaction, material and finish had to feel uniquely distinctive and yet warmly familiar all at once. We wanted to pay homage to a classic Parisian bistro while also creating a space that felt elevated, fresh and exciting,” said Hannah Collins, Principal Designer and Founder of ROY.
“We focused on grounding the design with historic architectural references like the curved wall, arched doorways and stately moulding details, while introducing modern feminine shapes and nuances. Honestly, the whole space is a delicate jewel box of wow moments.”
The high-low juxtaposition continues with The Riddler’s food and beverage selections, a mash-up of over 150 Champagnes, wines by the glass and one beer—Miller High Life, known as the “Champagne of Beers.” The majority of Pelka’s extensive Champagne list is sourced from smaller winemakers around the world and range from hard-to-find vintages to biodynamic, organic and natural offerings. There are also more well-known bottles from houses including Krug and Dom Pérignon.
Part of Pelka’s mission to eliminate the pretense surrounding Champagne is to serve it in wine glasses—not flutes. (And producers in the Champagne wine region of France will tell you to do the same.) Lessening the intimidation factor even further, she’s pairing it with Chef Nikole Morsink’s take on American and French comfort foods. Essentially it’s the kind of food that Pelka enjoys ordering on a night out with her husband, meaning lots of fried, crispy bites that are often aren’t supposed to be eaten with such a sophisticated elixir.
The usual suspects are there to please, think caviar and oysters, but that’s where the familiar narrative starts to veer. That aforementioned caviar is accompanied by Lay’s potato chips, instead of traditional blinis. Guests also have the option of a juicy, American-style burger served with rosemary french fries; frisée salad with a poached egg and warm bacon vinaigrette; or white truffle risotto with brown butter and parmesan. The Riddler also offers a single dessert for those looking to satisfy their sweet tooth—a dark chocolate pot de crème with Grand Mariner and salted caramel. It comes to the table playful in appearance, served in a caviar tin and topped with crunchy chocolate pearls to mimic faux fish roe.
What makes Champagne the ideal counterpart to anything fried, salty or abundantly rich is its high acidity and bubbly mouthfeel—the latter of which has been said to increase a food’s crunchy effect. Champagne’s effervescent qualities and zesty taste cut through fat, keeping your palate refreshed and clean with every bite.
Given that The Riddler opened its doors in New York just three short months ago, there’s still much more on the horizon. Pelka has teased the idea of adding cheesy gougères, chicken fingers breaded in Ritz crackers, pigs-in-a-blanket and an icebox cake made with cookies from Tate’s Bake Shop to the menu. The Riddler San Francisco’s most popular item, the famous tater tot waffle, is also rumoured to eventually make its Big Apple debut as a brunch offering.
The Riddler’s East Coast location can be considered a homecoming of sorts for Pelka, who was a New Yorker for nearly a decade before moving to San Francisco five years ago. It’s where her career in the restaurant industry began under the direction of Chef Daniel Boulud, in which she wore multiple hats at his Michelin-starred Upper East Side eatery, Daniel. Her entrepreneurial spirit, however, (based on the bar’s name) follows in the footsteps of fellow heroine and Champagne renegade, Madame Clicquot. Both of The Riddler locations are 100 percent female-funded and for the most part, woman-operated.
“I am so grateful to have an incredible community of investors who have helped me to create a truly special place at my favorite corner of the West Village,” said Pelka. “We all have a shared vision to spread the love of Champagne far and wide and to create the best Champagne bar in the country.”
With a motto that reads, “Hello, old friend”, in a charismatic manner that only Jay Gatsby could possess, The Riddler invites guests to come and celebrate in the little luxuries of everyday life.
Photography by Jordan Wise