Photo by DariuszSankowski
Ladies Who Lunch: The Champagne Exchange in San Francisco
Behind rows of neatly folded sweaters, just past overflowing racks of winter coats, and beyond the legions of polyester and rayon blends of Misses’ Coordinates lies San Francisco’s best kept secret. It’s the Champagne Exchange at Nordstrom, tucked away on the third floor of the San Francisco Centre, and overlooking the ever-changing sprawl and seediness of Market Street.
San Franciscans pride themselves on doing things their way, so it makes sense that this softly pastel dining space with it late ’80s chrome and wicker chairs, and deep, beginning-to-wear burgundy carpet should turn out to be the only champagne bar in San Francisco. None of these goggle-eyed, trend-seeking Bubble Lounges for us, no sir. Here at the Champagne Exchange at Nordstrom are the older, upper-middle class shoppers looking for quiet respite and a pampering glass of Veuve Cliquot, and the tired, suburban couples with a verging-on-fussy baby seeking out the very good garlicky bruschetta (a healthy portion for $2.75) to accompany their glasses of Roederer Estate and Jordan J. Occasionally, a reporter or city desk editor from the neighboring San Francisco Chronicle wanders in, wondering why the Exchange, with its lunch and dinner menu of Caesar salads, pesto turkey sandwiches, and daily soups, is absent of his colleagues, usually so good at sniffing out the value-for-money venues in the area.
Which, surprisingly, the Champagne Exchange is. It is less a champagne lounge that serves food than a cafe that serves champagne by the glass, and only one of which (Veuve Cliquot brut at $13 a glass) is a true Champagne. Those with something stiffer in mind may gravitate toward the frozen vodkas, of which there are thirteen. Bottles of Dom Perignon 1988 top the high end of the list, at $115. But, most of the guest here in the sparsely-filled 50-seater may be just as happy with a bottle of non-vintage Bollinger at $45.
Every year, there is some discussion among the Nordstrom mucky-mucks about closing the inconsistently patronized Exchange, or at least modernizing it. And every year, there is an outcry from the usually silent regulars, who come out of the woodwork in droves by writing querulous letters of protest. Not insignificantly, it is John Nordstrom a board member with, one assumes, some influence who always vetoes extermination. Nordstrom is, after all, about customer service, and that’s what the Exchange provides in its unobtrusive way.
The Champagne Exchange thus quietly lumbers on, a dinosaur among the high energy, ultra-loud, mega-hip Lulu’s (which closed in 2017) and Red Rooms of the city. Sitting at the window, with a glass of Scharffenberger (a steal at $5.75) raised delicately, teeming mobs below jockeying for position at the cable car turn-around on Powell Street, the newly refurbished historic Flood Building winking its golden lights from across Market Street, you may just feel a transformation coming on, no matter what your age or gender. The hat and gloves start to emerge, your purse gleams brightly, your violet-scented handkerchief is perfectly starched….yes, you’ve become one of them: The Ladies Who Lunch.
And it feels marvelous
Champagne Every Day and Every Way: The Bubble Lounge in New York City
Maybe Cole Porter got no kick from champagne, but the same cannot be said of the rambunctious crowd at the Bubble Lounge. In one corner an office party huddled on a cluster of plush sofas and chairs, with work-mates snuggled into each others’ laps. Some of the men smoked cigars with their bubbly, while others paired it with loud cell phone chats. A bouncy brunette squealed and clapped every time someone new joined their group.
Benedictine monk Dom Perignon got excited too when he first sipped champagne 200 years ago. “Brothers, come quickly, I am drinking stars!” he reportedly exclaimed. Champagne became the drink of choice for the French aristocracy, synonymous with an elegant lifestyle–and seduction.
In 1930’s movies a few sips could compel Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to get up and dance. At the Bubble Lounge, it loosened the inhibitions of a less graceful couple who awkwardly tangoed up and down a thick Oriental carpet.
Champagne used to be reserved for special occasions, but at New York City’s only champagne bar, just getting off work seems reason enough to celebrate. Located in groovy TriBeCa–and perilously close to Wall Street–the Bubble Lounge plays host to a collection of trench-coats, suits and wire rims, as well as the odd Christian Lacroix T-shirt and nifty Helmut Lang outfit, which blend more appropriately with the dark, sexy atmosphere.
“This would be a great place if it weren’t for the people!” roared my friend Ridgely over the din of loud music and screaming, long-lost co-workers.
It’s true. The staff is lovely and knowledgeable about the pages and pages of champagnes available. We sampled a delicious $8 Bellini (sparkling wine with peach purée), a two-ounce, full-bodied taste of De Venoge “cuvée des princes” ($11), and a spectacular tear-drop flute of Krug grande cuvée multi-vintage ($15). That may sound expensive, but when you consider that a whole bottle runs into the hundreds, it’s a steal.
Things calmed down the later it got. The fatcats went home and more cool cats arrived. The music softened. We checked out the subdued downstairs area, which resembles a comfy bomb shelter. “Maybe I like this place after all,” Ridgely said hoarsely, having lost her voice from shouting. I had to agree. That was, until we got a whiff of our cigar-smoked clothes when we stepped back out into the cool, starry night.