Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m., daily
Prices: Appetizers $6-7; sandwiches and burgers $8-10
Fare: Bar food
Atmosphere: Nice bar and grill with a zillion TVs
Liquor: Full Bar
Smoking: Smoking downstairs, nonsmoking upstairs
When the Steelers won the AFC championship game in Denver, sealing their trip to the Super Bowl, the epicenter of celebration in Pittsburgh was East Carson Street between 18th and 19th streets. The police even blocked off traffic, permitting an impromptu street party. Granted that the South Side is Pittsburgh's home for, among other things, drinking and watching the Steelers, what led this particular block to become ground zero for black-and-gold-clad revelers?
Crowd psychology is a complex thing, but many observers pointed to a relative newcomer, the Locker Room Bar & Grill. How would a place open for only a couple of months draw such attention to itself? Having a bona fide Pro Bowl Steeler as one of the owners is a good start. And Hines Ward did himself one better, recruiting a number of his teammates as co-hosts and guest bartenders. Instantly, the Steeler faithful added a new sacred site to their pilgrimages.
We were as happy as anyone to see Pittsburgh get one for the thumb, but let's face it: When we talk about coming through in the clutch, we're thinking about turning out perfect entrees when the restaurant gets slammed. So, we asked ourselves, how do Hines' famously steady hands hold up in the kitchen?
Ward has declared in interviews that he was looking for more distinctive offerings than most sports bars boast, but when we ate there, the menu was in flux. On one visit, certain dishes were blacked out, while on our next trip the reprinted menu was about half new -- without much to distinguish itself from its countless competitors up and down the street. Still, the rest of Hines' commitment to excellence remains in place, with a genuine chef in the kitchen serving up mostly fresh food, rather than the deep-fried frozen stuff that dominates the sports-bar category.
"Field Goal French Fries" were shoestring style, not the ubiquitous steak cut, and held up handsomely to the Golden Arches standard. More exciting, however, were sweet potato fries that were just as crisp and light as their paler brethren, but with that uniquely sweet and earthy taste. Jason also whetted his appetite with wings in a bourbon jerk sauce that was tangy, sweet and subtly spicy, with just a hint of heat. Sadly, the wings themselves did not have enough meat on their bones to satisfy wing fans.
Kickoff clams promised an off-season trip to the shore, and the breaded strips were crisp and not chewy, but nor were they especially meaty. While they stood out as an unusual menu item for Pittsburgh, they did little else to set themselves apart. The same could not be said for The Roast Beast, a warm roast-beef sandwich on ciabatta with melty Muenster and creamy horseradish. The tomatoes were impressively ripe for early spring, and the tender meat seemed to be carved from a juicy roast right in the back.
Angelique's quesadilla featured a well-grilled tortilla filled with a mix of onions, diced red and green peppers, and a creamy combination of cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses. Black bean hummus, an intriguing ingredient on the menu description, was not in evidence, but the sweetly sautéed veggies, sour cream and guacamole added up to a balanced appetizer that was generous enough to sate a dinner-size appetite.
If only her two entrées, a California turkey burger and a turkey-chipotle wrap, had been as satisfying. On restaurant menus around these parts, "California" is usually synonymous with avocadoes, sprouts or both, leading to our disappointment when there was nothing particularly West Coast about the California turkey burger except a substitution of poultry for beef. Though the burger featured deep black grill lines, fresh lettuce and tomato toppings, and a crispy brown-topped bun, it had nothing in particular, flavor-wise, to set it apart from a standard all-beef patty. We knew from our quesadilla order that The Locker Room has avocadoes in its kitchen; a dollop of this rich green fruit would go a long way to dress up this otherwise undistinguished burger, making it more than just a non-red-meat-eater's fallback.
From the new menu, the Turkey Bacon Chipotle Wrap suffered from a similar syndrome. Although the spinach tortilla wrap and the filling of oven-roasted turkey and smoked bacon were fresh and savory, Angelique missed the brightness and bite of the promised lemon-chipotle sauce to round out the otherwise predominantly dry and salty flavors.
Ultimately, this kind of half-filled promise was what kept the Locker Room out of the end zone. When it comes to bar food, we don't expect a revelation on a roll. But when a restaurant promotes itself as something special, whether in its press releases or its menu, we want the same thing the coach does: execution.
Jason: 2 stars
Angelique: 2 stars