When one languishes in one’s world-weariness and cynicism, sharing stories on Facebook about how everything in San Francisco totally sucks now and we can’t even get a raised bike lane on Valencia without 23 cars parking themselves in it, it’s easy to think that everything cool has already been done, and probably getting Ellis Act-ed at this very moment.
Then a concept comes along that is so refreshingly novel that you wonder why nobody did it before. The Riddler, a compact Champagne bar in Hayes Valley, is such a spot. In all my boozing, I’ve never found a place that mixes highbrow and lowbrow quite like this. It could very well restore your faith in S.F.
First things first: The Riddler is spendy, even by 2017’s high threshold. (The median price of the nine sparkling wines available by the glass? $22.) If you’re the kind of person who loses all inhibition after two glasses of bubbles or who gives into peer pressure to order more, you might want to designate yourself as the driver.
But with that caveat — or maybe “cava-eat” — there is plenty here to love. Traditionalists have Charles de Cazanove Brut and Gonet-Medeville to keep them content, while the rest of us have chambongs. To drink from a chambong, which is a glass pipe with holes on either end, a server pours sparking wine into it while you plug the other end with your thumb. Attempting to maintain some semblance of éclat and aplomb, you will transfer the half-filled bong to your mouth without spraying yourself with the pressurized contents, and then the server will continue pouring as you shotgun everything. It’s fun. Dom Pérignon himself might have said, “Je fais un grosse désordre avec les étoiles.” Translation: I am making a big mess with the stars.
Although sadly, The Riddler’s tiny square footage — and tinier kitchen space — likely makes oysters impossible, there’s a lot more to it. Namely, three types of caviar, all with crème fraîche, chives, and potato chips, and all at very different price points: whitefish for $25, hackleback at $60, and royal white sturgeon at $150.
You can also get a plate of cheeses with marcona almonds, pickled grapes, and pluot jam, and charcuterie with pickled carrots, homemade mustard, and apricot chutney. Tater tot waffles somehow combine all this into a delicious whole. The smoked salmon waffle (with bowfin caviar, crème fraîche, and herbs) is oddly elegant in its form and aroma, yet with the irresistible snackability of a can of Pringles.
If, to mix metaphors, you have caviar wishes and Champagne dreams but also a beer budget, you’re not exactly shit out of luck, either. Take the Bump & a Shot for six, a cockamamie concept designed to replicate the act bonding over cocaine in the ladies’ restroom, only with a patina of mom-friendliness. The same three tiers of caviar apply, and you’re meant to spoon them onto the back of your hand. Only in this circumstance, they’re paired with six small shots of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs (for the sturgeon), Domaine Pichot Sparkling Vouvray (for the hackleback), and Miller High Life (aka the “Champagne of Beers,” with the whitefish).
Feeling a little down and/or shameless? Try a Joan, which is “a glass of cheap house wine filled all the way to the brim.” We ran through a bunch of famous Joans to see who it might be named for. Joan Crawford, possibly. Joan Collins would definitely sneer in disapproval before secretly drinking that. Joan Rivers would eat an Altoid instead. Joan Armatrading, probably not. Joan Miró, definitely not. So maybe Joan Cusack? Either way, if you’re desperately broke, mooching off your friends, and oh-so-hungry after that extra-tall glass, there is also a self-serve popcorn station that’s 100 percent gratis.
The Riddler is an endeavor put together by an all-women team led by Jen Pelka, and named for riddling — or remuage — the process of turning Champagne bottles so that the sediment moves to the neck for easy removal. Its plates are embossed with the slogan, “Hello, Old Friend,” but lest you think it’s all silliness, on Inauguration Day, the bar donated 100 percent of its rosé Champagne sales to Planned Parenthood. The future is female, and so is this excellent bar.
The Riddler, 528 Laguna St., No phone, theriddlersf.com