Bar Exam: Wheelhouse at Rivers Casino
The casino's popular sports bar gets a long-overdue review.
PHOTOS COURTESY RIVERS CASINO
Despite a relative lack of disposable income and the chronic inability to remember whether a straight beats a flush, I’ve spent a good amount of time at Rivers Casino since its 2009 opening. (In my day, we didn’t have any of your fancy cards and dice.) I’ve spent time at the Grandview Buffet, Andrew’s Steak and Seafood, Spiral Bar and Levels — and subsequently written about all of them.
The casino’s sports bar, Wheelhouse, has been absent from that list, however. I certainly haven’t been avoiding it; near as I could tell from a distance, it has beer, food and TV, which are a few of my favorite things. I’ve tried to go to Wheelhouse before. I just could never get in.
On every previous attempt, I’ve been met with a wait of at least an hour. Busy though the casino is, that seemed like a long delay; sizable lines have been known to form upstairs for the buffet, and Andrews recommends a reservation, but more than an hour? For a sports bar? On every occasion, I'd turned my attention elsewhere.
Undaunted, I decided to find out what I had been missing. I went during off-peak hours with an empty stomach and a question in mind: Why does this place always have a line out the door?
The answer was a bit simpler than I'd realized. There’s a wait because Wheelhouse is straight-up awesome.
I hate to gush, but I can’t help it. From the main dining room, you can turn in one direction to take in a unique cityscape, as the tops of skyscrapers peak over Heinz Field and the Carnegie Science Center while the Ohio rolls by. You can turn in the other direction to see the setup that gives Wheelhouse its serious sports-bar reputation: a giant television wall that can be divided into 20 or more screens or dedicated to one giant image, with a hypnotic LED scoreboard displaying out-of-town results and betting lines above.
The food is classic sports-bar fare with a number of local flourishes. You’ll spoil several days' worth of appetites on the Polish Hill Nachos, a plate of fried pierogies topped with Tex-Mex fixins. The loaded fries are a gooey, cheesy starch party that could easily feed three or four. The list of sandwiches reads like a roster of guilty pleasures: kielbasa, cheese steak, Cuban, buffalo chicken and more. I just finished my meal about an hour ago; I’m not sure I need to eat again until Sunday.
The drinks are the same as you’ll find anywhere under the casino roof, though they do offer a signature cocktail of the month (the September offering is a tasty bourbon, lemon and tonic). More important than the variety: You won’t lose all your table money paying for a round here. Beer and cocktails are no more than you’d expect at most spots around town, and they knock ’em down to $3 during happy hour (5-7 p.m., Monday to Thursday).
The reasonable prices extend to the food, too; that mountain of fries I referred to earlier goes for $6, and sandwiches range from $8-10. Nothing on the menu tops $25, and most choices cost less than $15.
As for the wait: Yes, if you arrive on a busy evening or during a big game, you’ll have to wait. The good news: The bar will page you anywhere within the casino (excluding the poker room), so you’re free to put your name in on arrival and head for the games until they’re ready for you.
Pittsburgh will never have a definitive sports bar. There are just too many; even within a stone’s throw of the casino, there are fine choices such as the Clark Bar and Grille and Rivertowne. But Wheelhouse is far from a casino add-on; this is a great place to hang out, plain and simple. Like everything at Rivers, it’s built and run with the tastes of the city in mind — and if you’ve been to some out-of-town casinos, that’s never a given.
I’ll be visiting again, no matter what the wait is.