When Jen Pelka moved to New York some 15 years ago, a recent college graduate who was working at the hedge fund D. E. Shaw, Champagne to her embodied the big-city-bright-lights lifestyle she associated with Manhattan. She and her friends were regulars at the now-closed Schiller’s, where they would walk in and the bartender would put a bottle of prosecco atop the bar, rarely with an accompanying bill.
“To me, it just really represented glamour and fun,” Pelka says of sparkling wine. “At that time, it was more about the feeling of it than any sort of serious study around it. And to me, it’s the sort of thing where if you have a bottle of sparkling wine on a Tuesday night, it automatically feels pretty good.”
The passion found its way into serious study, and Pelka is now the owner of two Champagne bars, called The Riddler: one in San Francisco, which opened in January 2017, and the second in Manhattan’s West Village, which opens this week.
Pelka loves Champagne — it’s hard to imagine someone speaking more enthusiastically about bubbly than she does — and she wants her customers to experience the special quality it brings to any night, whether a special occasion or an average Tuesday, like the ones she had back in her early twenties.
“To me, the ideal night out would be going out with somebody or dining at the bar alone, but ideally a date with my husband, crush a dozen oysters and a burger and fries and a bottle or two of Champagne,” she says. “That’s perfect.”
Pelka lived in New York for 10 years before moving to San Francisco five years ago for her husband’s job (a fellow restaurateur, he runs five Greek restaurants in the Bay Area called Souvla). The Riddler is San Francisco’s only Champagne bar. In New York, Pelka joins a small group, including Ari’s Champagne Bar, also in the West Village. She says the appetite for Champagne bars has changed since the early 2000s, when several places popped up but were more for a heavy night out.
“They were all very clubby. They were the kind of places where you could go and get bottle service and they’d bring out a bottle of Cristal with a sparkler in it, and it was really truly a club, with a huge Champagne list,” she says. “So obviously that’s not what we are. I mean, I think of us really as like a European-style café that has a killer, killer Champagne list.”
The New York location will have a deeper reserve list than its West Coast sibling, “because I think there’s a little bit more of an appetite for reserve wines here than there is in San Francisco,” Pelka says. “People drink off of that list regularly, but I feel like every restaurant I go into in New York I look around and people are really balling.”
While the San Francisco Riddler is small, limited in menu capabilities by the absence of a proper kitchen, the West Village location is a proper restaurant with a full kitchen, turning out bistro fare in Pelka’s beloved high-low mix.
“Especially because Champagne can be so intimidating to people, I think it’s really fun to pair Champagnes with comfort foods that we all know and love,” Pelka says.
That breaks down into high-end French cheeses, charcuterie, caviar, oysters, and a dark chocolate pot de crème, alongside chicken fingers and fries, popcorn at every table, a burger, and an icebox cake made from Tate’s cookies.
Pelka, who grew up in Florida, studied philosophy at Stanford before moving to New York, working on weekends for Daniel Boulud cooking in the kitchen at Daniel. Growing up, her father’s family owned diners and delis in New Jersey, which is where she caught the restaurant bug.
“[My parents] told me the only thing I couldn’t major in was philosophy, and the only thing I couldn’t do is open restaurants because it’s crazy. I’m not very rebellious, but on those two things I did not take their advice.”
In addition to the Riddler, Pelka runs the San Francisco-based food public relations firm Magnum PR, and this fall she and her brother will launch their own wine label, called Une Femme, partnering with only female wine makers and packaged in labels that they’ve loosely referenced off of Chanel’s.
“I think especially for women who, they buy Aesop, they have their Chanel handbags, they’ve got like brands that they really care about. And a lot of them, Champagne is their drink, but they don’t necessarily have a brand that is really speaking to them, and so that’s what we wanted to build,” she says about developing her line. A percentage of the proceeds will benefit the organization Dress For Success.
The Riddler will open Monday with over 150 bottles of Champagne varieties (with a few wines and one beer, “the Champagne of Beers,” Miller High Life) — and the list will only grow over time.
“Yeah, you’ll be able to drink through hundreds of different kinds of Champagnes,” Pelka says.