The Riddler, a bicoastal Champagne bar known for its menu of bubbles, caviar, and snacks like tater tot waffles, will not reopen either of its locations after the pandemic ends, owner Jen Pelka confirms to Eater. The business had two locations, in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley and in the West Village, in New York, both of which will sell off hundreds of bottles and the restaurants’ distinctive fixtures in the coming weeks.
The business began in San Francisco in 2017, backed by an all-female investment team and led by Pelka, who also owns Magnum, a full-service PR agency that’s represented clients like celebrity chef Traci Des Jardins, Ayesha Curry’s Michael Mina collaboration International Smoke, and a location of salad chain Sweetgreen. Despite her background in spin, Pelka minced no words regarding the closure, saying that it is “heartbreaking” but “just a reality of this environment we’re living in.”
By “the environment,” she’s of course talking about COVID-19, the threat of which has prompted the closure of indoor dining in both San Francisco and New York City since the pandemic began in mid-March. In both cases, city officials say that there’s no timeline to resume indoor activities, and even if dining rooms reopened tomorrow, that wouldn’t be enough to save the Riddler, she says. “The way a restaurant like this works is if the bar and restaurant are packed and turning tables four times a night,” she says. One of the reasons for this is because the Riddler’s dining rooms are exceptionally small: about 500 square feet in San Francisco, and 700 in New York.
That said, the numbers worked well for the Riddler (its name comes from a female-created process of “riddling” Champagne, not the Batman villain, just FYI) which was busy enough in San Francisco that it opened its New York location just last October, where it was “super popular out of the gate.” According to Eater NY food critic Ryan Sutton, the spot boasted “composed small plates and a buttery halibut dish that wouldn’t feel out of place at Le Bernardin,” and things were going well enough, Pelka says, that her 50-woman team of investors and she were planning further expansion.
“We were well-capitalized, we were making money...” Pelka says. And then, the shutdown. In an effort to remain afloat, both Riddlers offered takeout, sold bottles to go, and in San Francisco, experimented with outdoor dining. The company even scored a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, and worked out favorable terms with the landlords in both spaces. “None of it mattered,” Pelka said. “We were losing more than we could sustain. We just couldn’t make the numbers work.”
So, both locations have closed for good, and Pelka has launched a 50 percent off sale for the Riddler’s inventory of over 200 bottles. Both spots will also work with Bonhams auction house to sell off the restaurants’ Champagne buckets, glassware, and unique furnishings later this fall.
Pelka says that she hopes the restaurant fixtures and Champagnes will “go to good homes,” and says she hopes that fans and patrons of the Riddler will get first crack at the goods. She’s also working with her networks in New York and SF to find tenants to replace the Riddler in their locations, as ”both are on my two favorite corners in those cities.”
According to Pelka, the decision to close “didn’t come overnight,” but it did come more quickly than it might have in other circumstances. “The news and the landscape are shifting every day,” Pelka says, alluding to the fires that have currently made outdoor activity in San Francisco dangerous, “and decisions that would have taken weeks, we now have a couple days to figure out ... We’re just really sad we didn’t get to continue in these two spaces,” she says. “It breaks my heart for all of us.”
The Riddler’s New York sale can be found here — pickups must be made Friday, Saturday or Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pickups for the San Francisco sale will be August 28 and 29, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Riddler fans can also place orders with Pelka’s own Champagne line, Une Femme, online here.