A good Champagne bar should be as effervescent as the wine it serves. Some are bright, playful spaces to get giddy with your friends over French fries and Pét-Nat, some are elegant, moody spaces for caviar and coupes of Dom with your lover, and some combine irreverence and elegance: cloudy California bubbles with briny oysters, or Grand Cru Champagne and tater tots. There are as many styles of sparkling wine bars as there are sparkling wines, but the best ones break outdated notions of Champagne as stuffy or elitist, and bring bubbles into the hands and hearts of the people.
The Riddler in San Francisco, California
Backed by an all-woman investment team, managed by women, and named for the traditionally feminine profession of riddling (or turning) Champagne bottles, this elegant bubbly bar in San Francisco's Hayes Valley aims to serve serious wine with a playful spirit. Their eight-page wine list run the gamut from California Pétillant Naturels (a rustic style typically meant for local consumption) to "The Bucket List: Wine to try before you die," which includes unicorn bottles like a magnum of 1966 Taittinger Blanc de Blanc for $4,750. You can also ask for a "Joan," half a bottle's worth of house wine poured to the brim of the glass, or quaff your bubbly via Chabong – essentially a beer bong for Champagne. Just don't drink from a flute – the ladies at the Riddler prefer classic wine glasses for drinking bubbles, asserting you can swirl and sniff and get more sensory enjoyment from your bubbly with a bigger glass. Whatever you order, soak up your selection with snacks like tater tot waffles garnished with bowfin caviar and bottomless popcorn on the house.
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California's other wine countries
Effervescence in New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans is a hedonistic city known for excessive celebration. The city is full of places to drink great Champagne, but that didn't stop Crystal Hinds from opening her own watering hole dedicated to bubbles in 2017. Her menu is decadent and dense, with over 200 Champagnes by the bottle and 30 by the glass. There are six sparkling flights to narrow down the dizzying selection, with names like "Return of the Rosés" and "May All Your Pain be Champagne." The menu has a seafood focus one might expect from a low country locale, with items like the Gulf Seafood Plateau: "West Indies crab salad, snapper ceviche, royal red shrimp, murder point oysters, bowfin Cajun Caviar," but if you're in a cheesier mood, try the grilled half-wheel of Brillart Savarin with toast soldiers and dates. Finish off with a "Bubbles and Troubles" cocktail like the Hurricane Crystal – with tiki lovers crisyal & pineapple rums, bayou spiced rum, passion fruit, grenadine, bottex bugey-cerdon rosé and Banana Pain Perdu with caramelized banana, almond cream, and passion fruit.
Ambonnay in Portland, Oregon
David Speer opened Ambonnay in fall of 2011 and now, over eight years later, has turned it over to friend and fellow Champagne freak Michael Knisley. Knisley, a New Orleans native, fell in love with the bar on visits to Portland. When he heard Speer was selling, he knew he had to move to the Pacific Northwest and continue spreading the Champagne love. The bar is still in transition with reduced hours, but Thursday through Saturday you can score a seat at the marble bar and order from the focused, bubbles-only menu. There are seven Champagnes by the glass, and twenty-seven by the bottle (though Knisley plans to add more soon), as well as a selection of Oregon sparkling wines. If the menu is somewhat spare, it's lovingly assembled with a couple options in every category: blends, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Vintage, and Rosé. Nibble on a rotating selection of local cheeses, Mantequilla olives from the south of France, pistachios, or truffled popcorn. In true Portland style, Ambonnay perfectly hits the note of cozy hole-in-the-wall where you can get a special bottle to celebrate, or feel festive on a weekday watching the bubbles drifting upwards in your Rosé De Saignée.
Air's Champagne Parlor in the West Village, New York
One of Champagne's biggest roadblocks to accessibility is its high price tag – which is why Ariel Arce of Air's Champagne Parlor took a bold step toward democratizing bubbles by lowering her prices to retail markup just four months after opening. The marble-topped space with velvet barstools and potted palms feels as luxe as the menu, but casual enough for a weeknight. In addition to minimizing the price point, Arce keeps her women-only staff light, and food paired down to the trifecta of charcuterie, french fries, and a raw bar. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – the ladies at Air are adept at honing in on your preferences without judgement, only bubbling excitement, whether for a bottle of Pét-Nat from natural Portuguese winemaker Duckman for $48, or Pierre Peters Brut Rose Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger for $116. Order a caviar sandwich or Burgundy Truffle Frites and succumb to bubbly bliss.
Ça Va in Kansas City, Missouri
While Kansas City is better known for its barbecue than Champagne and Croque Madame, owner and chef Howard Hanna opened Ca Va in 2014. The name is French slang for "what's up," an expression which perfectly sums up Ça Va's vibe of French soul with a Midwestern lack of pretension. The bubbles list is an approachable three pages of Champagne, followed by the "Rest of France," then Italy, California, Hungary, and more. The tasting notes are the best part: three limpid descriptors ("lasers, focus, intensity" -Jacquesson Cuvée 739, $110) or hip-hop lyrics ("lit it who with it champagne get it, that’s the ticket" - Henri Goutorbe Special Club 2005, $199.) A leaf motif marks bottles that are organic, biodynamic, and natural. Snacks are a Champagne-soaked Francophile's dream: trout sardines, radish toast, and gougères, a French cheese puff. By the time you've finished a plate of the puffs and killed a bottle of Alexandre Penet Brut ("all the fruit dancing in a line!") you'll look around the dark panelled ceiling, the marble bar, the wine glasses hanging from the rack overhead, and say, "Dorothy...je ne pense plus que nous sommes dans le Kansas."
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