With great intention and well deservedly, The Riddler in Hayes Valley has become one of the most Instagrammed hotspots in San Francisco this year. The Parisian-inspired champagne bar that serves tator tot waffles and a dark chocolate pot de crème (that you need), was opened by a seasoned restaurant public relations pro, Jen Pelka of Magnum PR, and is helmed by a team comprised of 100% women. They approached the Riddler as a space for people to gather without feeling the intimidation that the word “champagne” might elicit, and not only have they been successful, the restaurant has become much more. From hosting an event to toast Peter Liem’s book, Champagne, where 100% of the proceeds went to North Bay fire relief, to jumping in while the smoke was still in the sky to be a refuge for donations and goods for women affected by the fires, this team keeps making a huge impact in the Bay Area community. Cheers to that. I asked Jen a few questions and keep reading what she has to say about the importance of being female led, and what makes for a perfect night at The Riddler.
When did the idea for a Champagne bar pop into your head?
I’ve wanted to open a Champagne bar for many years…I really love Champagne because it can turn any old night into a celebration. I’ve been a regular at the sushi bar across the street from The Riddler for many years, and I always loved the cafe that was here—it was a place called Momi Toby’s that was a coffee shop for 27 years. It had such great bones: an ancient dark wood backbar, lots of original molding, and a corner space with floor to ceiling windows. I big on the space for over a year, and it was a dream come true when we finally got it!
What void in the dining/cocktail space in San Francisco were you aiming to fill?
After living in New York for 10 years, I came to really love wine bars, and I wanted to bring some of that feeling here to my neighborhood in San Francisco. I wanted to create a space that was accessible, sexy, and with a sense of timelessness to it. Our kitchen is tiny, and our cooking equipment is very limited, so I focused on fun dinner-party-style dishes that I love to serve with Champagne: popcorn with all sorts of salts and seasonings, tater tot waffles, great cheese & charcuterie plates, and truly decadent chocolate desserts.
What main challenge came up when assembling your team for The Riddler?
I’m always looking for great talent to join the team at The Riddler, from our creative collaborators on the design and development side, to skilled, approachable, stylish servers who are passionate about Champagne. We continue to build out our team training to make sure that everyone is on the same page about how we talk about wine with our guests. Champagne can feel intimidating to some guests, and we want those who visit us to feel comfortable, relaxed and celebratory when they’re with us.
Why was it important to you to be female led?
From the moment I decided that our investor pool would be made up 100% by women, The Riddler evolved from being a bar to a mission-driven project. Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by inspiring women as mentors, teammates, colleagues and friends. It was a natural decision for me to turn to this community when looking for funding, support and leadership.
How has running a PR firm helped guide you when you make decisions for the Riddler?
It’s been hugely helpful. I learn so much every day from our work with other restaurant clients, and we’ve been blessed with a tremendous amount of opening coverage of The Riddler as a result of our relationships with journalists, photographers and videographers around the country. When designing the space, I created many details specifically with Instagram in mind: a Champagne bottle mural for selfies, our logo on all of our tables, and our “Champagne Bar” sign out front. They’re all simple touches that I love on their own, but we also see tremendous marketing benefit from guests being able to identify our space on Instagram.
What tone did you want the décor to elicit?
When I’m at the beginning of a project, I’m a dreamer, and I think visually about an experience: with The Riddler, I built loads of boards related to the materials, colors, fixtures and finishes for the Riddler space. First and foremost, I wanted to maintain the Parisian cafe vibe with the old wooden backbar and outdoor cafe seating, add some New York City glamor with a black and white and gold color palate, and incorporate a sense of history with vintage touches like my collection of Champagne buckets, silver, and crystal salt & pepper shakers. I wanted The Riddler to be a space where you could come for a happy hour drink with a friend after work, for a half bottle of something special before the symphony in a full on gown, or date night with a pair of heels and a bright red lip. I like that we’ve created a space where people truly dress up and make a night of it. That’s honestly something I miss a bit about New York, and we hear this from our guests all the time… that they like that people have put some effort into their night out, but that our space is still casual enough in its vibe.
What is a design element about the space that people may not realize at first?
Our gold leafed ceiling took four people three days to apply…it’s absolutely beautiful and casts a really lovely glow into the space, especially later at night when the lights are low. We worked with artist Caroline Lizarraga on the design at the recommendation of Kim Alter, the owner of Nightbird. She’s also done some other great work in the neighborhood lately, including beautiful rose gold drips in the dining room and a wild multi-colored bathroom at Robin.
What is a decision touchstone for selecting the Champagnes that you carry?
First and foremost, it has to taste great. With the exception of very rare or vintage selections, we taste all of the Champagnes we add to the list. It’s collaborative and several of our staff members have to love the wine before it goes on the list. We focus on benchmark producers, whether the big name houses or smaller grower-producers. I like to keep as much variety on the list as possible so that we can represent many points of view and to be as accessible as possible in terms of price point. We love to feature women-made wines, half bottles and magnums at exceptional value, and unusual regions or styles so that people can explore.
What makes for a perfect evening at the Riddler?
Score an outdoor table on a long, lazy, late Sunday afternoon with a group of friends, luxuriating over gossip and a bottle or two of Special Club Champagne, a tater tot waffle topped with prosciutto and arugula, an order of whitefish caviar with potato chips, and a grand finale of our dark chocolate pot de creme with chocolate pearls on top.
For more on The Riddler, go here.
Original images for 24 East by Lauren Andersen