To Jen Pelka, the founder of much-loved San Francisco Champagne bar The Riddler, New York City feels like home. Pelka spent her early twenties working in Manhattan, racking up stints at Daniel, Bocuse d’Or, Gilt Groupe, and Tumblr along the way, and even though she's been in San Francisco for over five years, her nostalgia for New York endures. Now, she can say she has firm roots in both cities, as her second, highly anticipated location of The Riddler opens in the West Village on Thursday, October 10.
Fans of the original bar will find plenty of familiar elements, from the “Hello, Old Friend” tagline on the white enamel tables to the intricate gold leaf ceiling. Pelka also stuck with an all-women investor team, with New York Riddler backers including Ruth Reichl, Kerry Diamond of Cherry Bombe, and Shan Lyn-Ma (founder & CEO of Zola).
“We’re in an amazing position that there are so many people who are excited about the idea of investing in a project with other women, that supports women,” Pelka told us in February. “It's truly a community. It’s not like a traditional restaurant investment where you just write a check and you’re not engaged in any real way, or it’s just a financial level of support. I talk to my investors really regularly, and there are some I talk to every week.”
That project is now a reality, a beautiful 700-square-foot corner space—slightly bigger than its sister location—with a sleek white marble bar juxtaposed against a black wall. It's cozy and intimate, brightened with plenty of natural light and brass accents. The pièce de résistance? A black and white photo of young Jacqueline Bisset drinking Champagne, which is another San Francisco import (Pelka notes she’s “very much our muse”). However, what makes this new location a standout is the addition of a full kitchen and raw bar.
Although the finalized menu isn’t available yet, the extra real estate has allowed chef Nikole Morsink to sketch out a promising spread, with Riddler SF classics and New York newcomers alike. Think frisée salad with warm bacon vinaigrette, The Riddler Burger with raclette and a side of fries (reader, we tried the fries and they’re spectacular), Ritz Chicken Fingers, pigs in a blanket, figs in a blanket, and a Frito Pie-esque dish with caviar, crème fraîche, and potato chips served in a Lays bag. Essentially, guests will find everything Pelka loves to eat with Champagne—and that means a raw bar, too, alongside cheese and charcuterie and the Riddler’s famous tater tot waffles.
“Champagne can truly go with anything, which is awesome, but it complements anything that’s fried very, very well,” she said. “It’s almost, if you think about it, how a Sprite is refreshing with something that’s fried. It cuts through, almost in the way that a beer is really good with fried foods. It’s effervescent, and high-acid, and really light.”
Speaking of drinks, the wine list is sizable, as you'd expect at a Champagne bar. There will be over 150 Champagnes and sparkling wines by the bottle, including reserve Champagne, vintage wines, and an “extensive selection of Special Club Champagnes.” Pelka said it’s a privilege to work in a world where she introduces customers to new Champagnes every day, getting to see the moment when they lose their pre-conceived notions and get excited. Although, if you don’t like Champagne, still wines will be available, alongside one single beer. (If you guessed Miller High Life, also known as “The Champagne of Beers,” you’d be correct.) In the end, it's all about people having a good time.
“I want people to come and join us when they have something to celebrate, whether it’s their regular old fabulous life or something really specific,” she said. “I want people to feel empowered with wine knowledge so that they can make good, educated choices, but also, that they are just having a great time. I want people to feel sexy and that they can have fun and let their hair down, but they can also be dressed to the nines.”
Even with the New York Riddler on the cusp of opening, Pelka already has her sights set on expanding to other locations, with D.C., London, Tokyo, and Champagne in consideration. She and her brother, Zach, will also be launching a Champagne brand of their own later this year—she wrote on Instagram that “after serving tens of thousands of bottles of Champagne at The Riddler, I’ve found that there’s not a *widely available* Champagne that speaks to our generation.” Accordingly, the duo came up with Une Femme, which will include a Brut Champagne and sparkling rosé, according to a representative.
"The high-low for us is really important, because a lot of places that I’ve been, especially a lot of Champagne bars that I’ve been to, are very, very fancy," she said. "They’re either very clubby or very fancy, and we try to be almost a European-style cafe/wine bar. It’s got a little rock and roll to it."