If weddings and New Year celebrations are the only moments in your life that call for Champagne, Jen Pelka might want a word with you. “For me, Champagne turns any moment into a celebration,” she says. “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.” 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-trimmed tables and a glam marble bar, where vintage bubbly 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,” she says. She 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, and 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,” she says. “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.
This process was pioneered in the early 19th century by Barbe-Nicole Clicquot—better known as the widow, or veuve, Clicquot—who revived her late husband’s flailing wine business and revolutionized the Champagne industry along the way. Pelka shares Clicquot’s entrepreneurial spirit; in addition to The Riddler, she runs Magnum PR. And, almost magically, her project caught the eye of more than 30 other talented industry women, ranging in age from 20s to 70s, who wanted to support her and invest in the wine bar. It’s entirely woman-funded. Pelka tapped sommelier Marissa Payne to assemble the wine list, which spotlights over 100 true Champagnes, an impressive selection of global sparklers, and a small number of still wines from California and France. (The latter focus on Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, to stay true to the grapes of Champagne.)
To keep all that fizz in check, there’s the 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 them in cast-iron skillets, topped with things like smoked salmon with dill, crème fraîche and caviar, and soft poached egg with shaved truffles. As for those pigs in a blanket, they’re wrapped in buttery puff pastry and slicked with a honey-mustard–brown-butter glaze.
If this all sounds like the makings for a killer party, then you’ve got the right idea. To celebrate the opening of The Riddler, Pelka recently gathered some close friends for Champagne at her home, a few blocks from the bar. For the neighborhood fête, she and her fiancé, Charles Bililies—owner of Souvla, a Greek restaurant with three outposts in San Francisco—lugged home some of Pelka’s favorite ice buckets and a cache of etched crystal coupes, set up a DIY popcorn bar and got to work griddling Tater Tot waffles in their dining room. The bubbly flowed as freely as the conversation all evening. Dorothy Parker once wrote that sufficient Champagne was one of the least attainable things in life. Pelka is happily proving her wrong.
JEN PELKA'S RECIPES: