With the football season upon us, it only seemed right to have dinner at at football-themed restaurant. That’s how stand-up comedian Jason Clark and I ended up at Jerome Bettis Grille 36.
Located on the North Shore, Grille 36 is a stone’s throw away from the field. In case you’re new to Pittsburgh,Bettis played from from 1996 to 2005. Bettis, known as “the Bus,” rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons with the Steelers and is currently ranked fifth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.
The restaurant opened in 2007. It’s had a lot more staying power than some other local athletes’ ventures into the culinary scene. When ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown went on the road for only the second time in 23 years, they chose to broadcast out of Grille 36 ahead of the Steelers-Patriots game in December 2017.
The last time Clark, who is also director of operations at the Arcade Comedy Theater, visited the Grille a few years ago, he received heartbreaking news: his favorite item, the wedge salad, had been taken off the menu.
“I asked ‘why would you take it off the menu?’ and they said, ‘well, it’s not a healthy option,’” Clark remembers. “A restaurant that has a deep-fried cheeseburger on the menu is going to say that their reason for not having something is that it’s unhealthy?”
Little did we know at the time, but that theme of disappointment was going to continue.
“We should try something alcoholic,” Clark suggests. I go for the Game Day Juice, which to my surprise didn’t involve steroids, just blackberry whiskey, vodka, lemonade, and lemon lime soda. Clark orders Rooney’s Raspberry Truffle Martini. It arrives to the table topped with whipped cream and a chocolate drizzle. Unless Bettis knows something about the late Steelers owner that the rest of us don’t, that addition doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Clark enjoys the drink, though, and it gives him a whipped cream mustache that harkens back to the “Got Milk?” days.
“Look at me. You’re like, ‘this guy, he’s gonna get a 36 ounce beer,’ and I’m like, ‘hell yeah, I want a chocolate martini.”
Then it was time for Kickoff. No, seriously. The appetizers are labeled, “Kickoff.”
“Now, I do have a thing that if a restaurant has tater tots, I am relegated to try the tater tots.” But the tots offering at Grille 36, “Totchos” loaded with queso and chilli, were a little too much for Clark. We decided on the Margherita Flatbread instead.
So far, so good. The tang of the balsamic reduction really makes the flatbread. But when the server returns to take our orders for the “Main Event,” Grille 36 begins to fumble like their namesake did in the 2005-2006 AFC Championship. I decide to lean in to the Bettis-ness of it all and order the “Bus” Steak Salad. I order the steak medium, but it came out well done. Clark attempts to order the Pan-Fried Chicken. Pass incomplete. The kitchen is apparently out.
“That hurts; that’s a tough one,” Clark says. “I didn’t have a [plan] B ready to go.” For his second choice, Clark decides to play it safe with the Fish & Chips. He asks to replace the fries with tater tots, but the plate comes out with fries. When the mistake is corrected, Clark comes out of the deal on top, with two sides for the price of one.
Clark says he’s loved comedy for a long time. He remembers being allowed to watch Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show monologue as a kid before bed. But it took him a while to find his way from the audience onto the stage.
“It was about the same time as my kids were not wanting to hang out with us anymore,” Clark says.
He and his wife had friends in the comedy scene who encouraged him to get involved. Clark did his first five-minute set and was hooked right away.
“I’d never felt that rush before, it was incredible to me to make people laugh.”
He took improv classes at the Arcade to help build his skills, which led to a year-long stint on one of the Arcade’s house improv teams. Clark says he loved the experience, but he learned that he prefers the “solo sport” of stand-up because he has more control.
“What’s great is my wife writing with me,” he says. Clark’s preferred stand-up style is storytelling. He loves to work through ideas for his act with his wife, Melissa. She’s supportive of Clark’s comedy, but she’s also ready to tell him when something in his act needs to change.
“She’s not the kind of partner that’s like ‘you are the funniest person,” he says. “There’s many times when my wife is like, ‘uh, that was not good.’”
Stand-up led Clark to a lot of other opportunities, including his role as director of operations at the Arcade, the podcast Grown Dad Business, which he co-hosts with Aaron Kleiber, and even a small role on the upcoming CBS show One Dollar, premiering August 30.
After the entree, we find ourselves in Overtime — the Grille 36 term for dessert — and ask for the Nutella Cheesecake. Again, they don’t have it. In fact, of the five desserts on the menu the only one available is the Towering Carrot Cake.
“C’mon, Jerome!” Clark says. “Is Jerome here? Can we talk to Jerome?”
It’s possible that the slim pickings at Grille 36 were because we came the day after Family Fest at Heinz Field. Luckily, Clark and I both enjoy carrot cake, though apparently nobody else does. The gigantic slice comes to the table drowned in whipped cream and haphazardly sprinkled with grated carrot. But what it lacks in looks, it makes up for in delicious cream cheese icing.
On our way out of the restaurant Clark insists on showing me something interesting about Grille 36 — the men’s bathroom. He checks to make sure it’s empty and points above the urinals. It immediately becomes evident that the mirror behind the host stand is in fact a two-way mirror. The men who stand at the urinals can gaze out through the glass upon the entire restaurant, unseen from the other side.
I flashback to the ten minutes I spent in front the host stand, waiting for Clark to arrive, not knowing that I was being watched by men at urinals. Clark and I agree that it’s a strange experience from both ends.
“Yeah, I’ve got performance issues,” he jokes. “It’s a little much.”