Interview with Jen Pelka of The Riddler San Francisco

For those of you in the Food & Wine world in San Francisco, you probably know Jen Pelka. She is the Owner of Magnum PR and also engaged to Charles Billilies of Souvla San Francisco (read my interview with Charles here). Earlier this Winter in January, Jen’s Champagne Bar The Riddler opened. It has been very very well received with long waits (always a sign of a hot spot), and an adored Champagne menu pairing with light bites, caviar and other yummy fabulous eats. Learn more about this talented woman and her new Champagne Bar The Riddler below.

What was your first memory of wine and when did you know you wanted to open a Champagne Bar?

I went to college at Stanford and after Freshman year, most people live in co-ed houses. I was the social manager for my house and I would plan wine and cheese events. I knew pretty much nothing about wine, but I knew French wines were supposed to be good. I’d go to Trader Joe’s and stock up on bottles of the cheapest French wines and pair them with French cheeses—it was a hit!

When I was working at Gilt Taste, I went to a Champagne tasting by Veuve Clicquot and it was the first time I tasted many different vintages and styles from one house. It was really eye-opening! During the tasting, they explained riddling and its history and I decided on the spot that one day I would open a Champagne bar called The Riddler.

What was your inspiration behind the name The Riddler?

The Riddler is named for wine’s humble but essential caretaker at a Champagne house: a Riddler rotates the bottles each day by hand, pushing the wine’s sediment into the neck of the bottle so it can be removed to create a crystal-clear wine. Riddling was invented in the 19th century by wine’s legendary female entrepreneur, Madame Clicquot, the 27-year old widow who inherited Veuve Clicquot.

How did you determine your wine list? Are there any special Champagnes with sentimental value to you?

Our wine list was built by our wine director, Marissa Payne and she tasted through literally thousands of wines to make her final selections. We opened with about 100 Champagnes by the bottle and 25 sparkling wines from other regions around the world as well as some hard-to-find Special Club Champagnes.

Pierre Péters was my ah-ha wine. Their blanc de blanc grand cru is an affordable and incredibly delicious Champagne. The first time I tasted this wine and learned about grower-producer Champagnes, I was at my dear friend Greg Castells’—who now owns Martine’s Wines—house for a long and leisurely brunch with Champagne and lots illegal French cheeses.

This is the first bar you have opened, correct? What will differentiate the Riddler from other wine bars in San Francisco? 

Yes! It’s the first bar I’ve opened. It’s designed as my ideal neighborhood wine bar that shares my and my teams passion for Champagnes and sparkling wines. I want it to be a place where people come to explore the list in a way they may not at other places. Whether someone is coming for a night with their friends or they want to learn more about wine and Champagne, we look forward to welcoming them in!

Within a few months of our opening, we plan to introduce classes and activities—think Champagne tasting and personal branding classes, tastings and trunk shows. Those type of things!

Will you do any week night specials or special things depending on the night of the week?

Once we roll out brunch, we’ll be introducing special cocktails and punches.

Do you plan to offer a wine club or VIP membership at the bar?

Yes! If you drink 100 Champagnes from our list, you’ll be inducted into the 100 Club—a rare club of like-minded Champagne obsessives—and awarded a black bomber jacket with your name embroidered in gold to prove it!

Who has been the most influential mentor in your career and why?

Daniel Boulud. I had the privilege of working at Daniel’s restaurant group for five years when I was living in New York City. First, I staged in the kitchen on Saturdays for a year and a half, then I was his research assistant, and eventually the Bocuse d’Or competition director when Daniel and Thomas Keller first took it over.

The biggest thing I learned from Daniel was generosity with your guests and team. He really takes great care and incredible pleasure in making every guest’s experience special. He also says “yes” and gets excited about new ideas and new projects. He is super positive and his enthusiasm is infections. He loves collaboration and feels that if you find other really interesting and talented people and collaborate with them it’s both really fun and it amplifies the quality of everyone’s work.

What is your favorite Champagne? Favorite table wine?

My favorite special occasion Champagne is vintage Krug. There’s nothing like it! It sets the standard, it’s incredibly rich and powerful, and it stops you in your tracks. I would drink it with anything.

I love a lot of Greek sparkling wines right now. I’m particularly into the sparkling rosé that’s poured by the glass at my fiancé Charles’ restaurant, Souvla.

What is your favorite San Francisco restaurant? Wine bar?

Zuni Café is my go-to, classic San Francisco restaurant—it’s a block from my apartment! Charles and I always start with oysters and shrimp followed by the Caesar salad and fries, and then the chicken with a white Burgundy and then Champagne.

I also love Rich Table, AL’s Place, Mister Jiu’s, The Progress, Barzotto, Leo’s Oyster Bar, Del Popolo, and Liholiho Yacht Club. My favorite nostalgic places are Swan Oyster Depot and House of Prime Rib.

Charles and I go to Hillstone at least two times a month. Hands down, they have the best kale salad and French Dip on Earth. And they don’t have a corkage fee!

I have three favorite wine bars. Union Larder is my favorite place to drink alone and it reminds me of New York City. It has a killer wine list, delicious food, and a great vibe. In my neighborhood, I’m a regular at both Fig & Thistle and Birba. They’re both incredible wine bars run by women I really admire who are great friends and supporters in the neighborhood.

With your love of wine, do you have any interest in making wine? As in possibly launching a wine label in the future?

Yes, of course! I’d love to partner with a great producer to create wine. We hope to have a house label and we would like the design to look just like the one our graphic artist Danielle Moore created for our mural.

My fiancé Charles has done it at Souvla where he does all of his Greek wines and it’s been a tremendous amount of fun!


Photos by Kassie Borreson 

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