Chef Zoe Deeg has a tattoo on her left forearm that says “fuck brunch.” And yes, with her feelings toward every weekend warrior’s favorite meal made abundantly clear, the kitchen she helms at San Francisco’s The Riddler has begun putting out a champagne-soaked meal from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
But don’t call it brunch.
“Brunch-ish,” says Jen Pelka, owner and mastermind behind The Riddler. “It’s not full-on brunch.” Pelka says she’s been wanting to do a brunch service at her champagne bar for a long time, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of.
If you talk to anybody in the restaurant industry about brunch, you’ll pretty much get the same answer: It’s a huge moneymaker that’s often the bane of the kitchen and service staff’s existence. Think large, hungover parties that promptly get drunk and loud on bloody Marys or mimosas. The food and brunchy drink specials are low-quality, and often, the customer doesn’t notice or care.
At The Riddler, though, Pelka describes her brunch-ish service as champagne-forward with bites that pair perfectly with bubbles. “I don’t understand why people don’t take wine service more seriously at brunch,” she says. “I wonder if that’s because of hangover culture—that your brunch beverage is just seen as the hair of the dog. But shouldn’t it be just as important as the wine that you’re drinking at night? Why should it be any lower quality?”
To that end, Pelka insists that there will be no mimosas at The Riddler’s brunch-ish—and it won’t even serve orange juice: “I have a bad flavor memory of mimosas. Like, they are for when you’re 21 years old, hanging in a big city, and getting bottomless mimosas that are made from André.” But there is a sparkling wine cocktail worthy of the restaurant’s brunch-ish: The bellini. “We think of the bellini as a beautiful champagne cocktail,” says Pelka. “We’re not putting garbage sparkling wine into it. Ours is made from organic peach purée, lemon juice, and a really nice cava that I would totally drink on its own.” Although bellinis are traditionally made with peach purée, The Riddler will also be playing with flavors like blackberry and, yes, blood orange. “That’s the closest we may come to mimosas,” Pelka admits. They’ll also always have a canned sparkling wine on the menu. Right now, it’s Ramona, an organic Sicilian sparkling wine with a touch of ruby grapefruit.
Some more places brunch-ish will not go? “You won’t see eggs Benedict and stacks of pancakes and all that,” says Pelka. “I want our guests to feel sated but not overwhelmingly full and gross, which I feel happens a lot at brunch.” Shockingly, The Riddler will not offer its famous tater tot waffles at brunch due to the limitations of its tiny kitchen. Instead, it will run what Pelka calls a “tea-style service.” For $24 per person, brunch-ish-ers will get a three-tiered tray, which will feature seasonal fruit salad, a choice of a sweet or savory pot (currently the choices are earl grey chia pudding or a savory grain bowl), and a choice of sweet and savory pastries from local bakery Jane. Trust us—it’s plenty of food, and the tiny (but not too-tiny) pots make a delightful, shareable experience. It does resemble afternoon tea, but with playful touches you wouldn’t find at The Plaza—and, not to mention, a much gentler bill. It’s lovely, not too serious, and definitely not sloppy. As Pelka puts it, it’s special.
There may be more delights still to come for The Riddler’s brunch-ish. Pelka’s blue-sky ideas include a caviar supplement and fresh oysters. But, as is the case with everything else at The Riddler, there will be a special twist to the latter. “I want to have someone on our staff wearing a holster with oysters on ice and shucking them tableside.” She also suggested that the kitchen might start rolling out brunch-inspired dishes that are playful riffs on the original, like an eggs Benedict “pot” with a poached egg, hollandaise sauce, ham, and spinach, or a smoked salmon board.
And Pelka isn’t giving up on those tater tot waffles quite yet. “Maybe you’ll see tater tot waffles with an egg on top . . . but we’ll have to convince Zoe.”