The Wheelhouse is Pittsburgh’s new sports bar to beat

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No matter what you order at The Wheelhouse, it’s sure to satisfy.  (Photo/Matt Kovacick)

The Wheelhouse, located in the Rivers Casino, is a winning bet dressed with superior service, ultra lounge aesthetics and good eats that will make any foodie’s heart content.

What I first noticed as I walked in was the cool, sleek and sexy art deco style. I was amazed at how many TVs — 44 in all — encircled the room. Some blended so well with the décor, they peaked out to surprise you.

I met with Richard Marmion, Rivers Casino’s executive chef, who previously worked at the Rio in Las Vegas. Richard is a Pittsburgh native and said, “I love being home. My brother and his wife live on the Northside, so it’s sort of a reunion for us. I really missed the Pittsburgh food, the change of seasons, football and my family.”

Chef Richard encourages the chefs at each food venue within the casino to purchase, and when time permits, even hand-pick their produce and meats from local vendors in the Strip District.

First at bat were “Dunkable Appetizers” ($5), the pretzel bites I typically avoid because they usually have the anhydrous look that shout for buckets of water to wash them down. I was pleased to see how buttery and eye appealing these were, tender with coarse salt and served with a side of Cheddar Ale dipping sauce that would make any cheese head from Wisconsin envious.

Next were the Beer Battered Onion Rings ($4), served with an all too familiar pink dipping sauce. I must say I was a little worried. In addition to reminding me of a spin on fast food condiments, these pink concoctions often reflect a confused and epic failure. However, the Wheelhouse reinvents the wheel (no pun intended) with their version of chipotle ranch. It was so good I kept going in for another dunk.

The Colossal Fish Sandwich’s ($9) best feature was that it lived up to its larger than life name. But, it failed to deliver what I look for in a Lenten paradise. The breading seemed bland and I would have preferred a Panko breading which has a buttery flavor, or a golden brown Guinness batter. The tartar sauce — a house aioli — woke it up a bit.

Batting cleanup this inning was Sudden Death ($9), a mound of shaved roast beef, sautéed peppers and onions, coleslaw, seasoned fries and gooey provolone topped with a fried egg on hand-cut Italian bread. This monstrous mound of sandwich success delivered so many layers of flavor that it easily overshadows, with all due respect, the sandwich it was designed to pay homage to.

What evening would be complete without dessert? Chef Richard offered a triple chocolate confection called “The Terrible Tower.” As I soon discovered, what was terrible about the Tower was that my photographer and I couldn’t finish it. Dark and moist decadent cake is separated with layers of creamy milk chocolate frosting, with darker and richer frosting for garnish. I would liken it to varying degrees of chocolate bliss, drizzled with raspberry coulis to snap you out of it.

The Wheelhouse officially opened its doors in January 2010. Greg Carlin, CEO of PRI Investors, is the heart and mind behind the Wheelhouse. Carlin thought that Pittsburgh needed an ultra lounge that could be versatile enough to offer all the entertainment and amenities couples and singles look for when going out.

The Wheelhouse offers something for everyone: casual dining and mixed drinks, televised sports and live pre-game broadcasts with Fox Sports Network, karaoke, a dance floor with live bands like “No Bad Ju Ju” from the North Hills, as well as a comfortable and sexy place to see and be seen.

Not far from the stadiums, the Wheelhouse is the perfect pregame location. Where else can you enjoy VIP accommodations with a price point menu, watch pregame on Pittsburgh’s largest television (190 inches) and then walk a hundred yards to the stadium?

Moving through the Wheelhouse is an experience as the open space seems to flow like an ambient river, allowing you to settle wherever the shore grabs you, and the low-cut booths maintain the integrity of a bird’s eye view to all the action.

I was surprised though to see mini flip chart table tents listing the exotic drinks. For this caliber of an establishment, I feel it brings the place down a notch to the level of an average sports bar, something it’s not. A better match would be to engage the guest without props and allow the knowledgeable staff to showcase the most appropriate selection. However, the Wheelhouse is appealing to high- and low-end clientele, so perhaps this is ingenious.

The Wheelhouse offers all you can eat pastas ($13.95) on Tuesdays and a three course slow roasted prime rib dinner ($19.95) on Sundays.

The Wheelhouse is setting the benchmark for what it takes to be a sports bar in Pittsburgh. For those who travel to Pittsburgh for the gaming, they will measure all other establishments in the city against the service and food they find here.

The Wheelhouse is not just an accomplishment for the rivers casino. It is an accomplishment for the City of Pittsburgh.

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