The Champagne Chronicles
With The Riddler's Jen Pelka.
May 17, 2017
By Cassandra Landry | Photos by Kassie Borreson
Everyone has flushed cheeks at The Riddler.
The stylish group posted up alongside a center table, the older Australian couple squished in next to the self-serve popcorn machine, the girls fluffing their hair and making faces at one another in the mirror behind the bar—every last one of them has a rosy hue blooming across their face. The sky on this particular night is broody and conflicted, sunny on some stretches of sidewalk and heavy with dark clouds the color of lead the next, but the few marble-topped tables on the patio are all occupied; everyone turns designer sunglasses to the heavens, drinking in the sun that isn’t there.
Inside, limbs get progressively looser as guests make return trips for popcorn—upending shakers of custom seasoning with abandon—and voices amplify with each successive glass of bubbles, which bartenders top off with a wink if you’re making that face like you’ve just found your bottled soul-mate. A photo of a tousled Jacqueline Bisset, cradling a coupe, presides over the room. Even at 5 pm on a weekday, the vibe is happily mischievous, with a glamorous tint to match the gold-leafed ceilings.
“It's cramped, it's loud,” owner Jen Pelka says of this pocket-sized room on a corner in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. “It’s raucous, which is not what people are necessarily expecting.”
This is what a good Champagne bar looks like. A great one, even. While the cynical may believe Champagne is just a beverage, there’s no room for that nonsense at The Riddler, where Champagne and its sparkling cousins wield a very real and very potent transformative magic; the menu is as much a selection of moods as it is a drink list. Much has been written about the look and feel of the place—its spiritual resemblance to the many beloved corner bistros that fuel Paris, its feminine power, its caviar service—but what strikes me most is its subtle pursuit of what I’ll call The Champagne Moment: A moment, nudged into existence by a glass of transcendent fizz, that stops time. That allows you to slow down and exist outside of yourself, to see the world through a more optimistic lens. To blush with the rest of the room.
“I’ve been drinking Champagne for so long. It's been such a huge part of my life, and a pretty substantial part of my identity for years,” Pelka says. “I've felt so humbled and excited by all these people who totally get it. At four o'clock on a Tuesday, the room is packed. Who are all these people?”
How many times did Champagne change the trajectory of her life? We'll start with three.
I started drinking what I thought was Champagne—but was Champagne-flavored prosecco—in my early 20s. I was living in New York in the Lower East Side, on Ridge and Rivington. Almost every night, I would go with two of my girlfriends to Schiller’s, which was two blocks from our apartment. We would walk in, and Dean the maître d’ would say, "Jenny from the block!" And then they would clear space at the bar. We would sit in one particular corner, flanked by these beautiful backlit mirrors so we could see the whole room. We would order a bottle of prosecco, drink that and then order another. They would charge us like two dollars, and we would leave a fifty-dollar tip. It was the time of our lives.
So my first Champagne moment, a moment that truly changed my life, was fueled by bubbles that I thought were Champagne, but were actually prosecco: the day that I met the sous chef of Daniel at the bar of Schiller's, which catapulted my career working for restaurants. My friend Emily and I were two or three bottles of prosecco in—it was one of those long day, drink-y kind of nights—and this cute guy was sitting down the bar reading a book called, "The Perfectionist," about Bernard Loiseau, the French chef who lost a Michelin star and committed suicide. Turns out he was Brian Reimer. I had heard that it was possible to stage at places, so I [asked if I could work for him.] He said to give him a call.
I called him on a Saturday, in the middle of service, because I didn't know what I was doing. He picked up the phone in the kitchen on the Daniel landline, and said sure, come in Saturday morning, 10 a.m., black pants, black shoes, white shirt, bring your knives. I ended up staging at Daniel for a year and a half on Saturdays. I eventually became Daniel [Boulud]'s research assistant and all these other sorts of things, and that snowballed my career. I got to connect with this person who fundamentally changed my life, very much for the better, and I think so much of it was because of the courageous sparkle of drinking two straight bottles of prosecco. You get this zippy fire inside of you.
[Editor's note: Read Pelka's homage in wake of the news of Schiller's closure.]
I was once in a blind tasting with Laura Maniec, the youngest and one of the only female Master Sommeliers in the country, and somebody who I have great respect for. We'd been tasting and tasting and tasting all day long and she was super fatigued. Then, she came across this one glass, like 45 glasses in. Picked it up, smelled it, swirled it, looked at it, inhaled and went, “Hello, old friend.” That was Krug. Before she even tasted it, she knew what it was.
“Hello, old friend,” is now our tag line at The Riddler. For us, for me, it's absolutely a nod to the idea that you can come home to a wine. I love that so much. It’s how we want our guests to feel, as if they’re coming back to a place, even if they've never been there before. We want them to feel that sense of hospitality that you feel at any of the McNally restaurants like Schiller’s, where you walk in and they clear a space for you at the bar. Here you go—welcome back.
Very early on in my relationship with Charles [Bililies, Souvla], we were dating long distance; Charles was living out here in San Francisco working as a server, trying to open Souvla and doing all this fundraising, and I was living in New York. We would travel across the country and it was always really fun when we saw each other because it was like we were on vacation.
He came to town for my 30th birthday, and I went and picked him up at the airport. He brought—in his suitcase, across the country—a bottle of Charles De Cazanove, which has sort of become our house Champagne because it's Charles De Cazanove. He chilled it on the plane somehow, and we hopped onto a train and zipped out to our friend's house for my birthday party. We drank the Champagne out of red Solo cups. So in love. So excited.
For our third date weekend, we started at our friend's house in Mill Valley and had a big huge dinner party. In the morning, the guys got up and made us breakfast, and we drank several bottles of Pierre Peters with this incredible egg-laden breakfast, and finished it off with Tartine bread, slathered in butter, covered in really oozy, illegal French cheeses. That was the first time I ever had bread with butter and cheese. But that's the only way that our friend Greg, the French guy, knows how to do it. It was also the first time I really had ever had a grower-producer like Pierre Peters.
Then we rolled into the rest of that weekend. We drove on all of the windy back roads through Napa and ended up at Nick's Cove in Tomales Bay and had Champagne and barbecued oysters out on a little houseboat cantilevered over the oyster beds.
So, really? We try and have Champagne Moments every week.
The Riddler is open Tuesday-Sunday in San Francisco, CA.