Since 2002, Arena Bar and Grill has been a popular Wilkes-Barre establishment. What’s not to love? It has endless choices of beers and martinis, a great happy hour and a really good menu — one that features some of the best wraps and fries this side of the Endless Mountains.
Since my friend Rita and I know the latter for a fact several times over, we decided to skip our “usuals” on a recent outing and go into uncharted territory for us: entrées.
With several pasta choices, including lobster and shrimp scampi and crab tortellini, dinners like jumbo Irish fish and chips, Magic #9 chicken (grilled and smothered in Magic Hat #9 apricot barbecue sauce) and grilled steak and shrimp skewers, decision making was no easy feat. Surprisingly, we chose our grilled wasabi tuna appetizer ($9.50) instantaneously, even bypassing two scrumptious-sounding appetizer specials: ranch chicken bites and spinach and feta quesadilla.
One of the dinner specials on our particular night — samurai ribeye steak, a 12-oz. steak marinated in ginger-soy sauce and drizzled with wasabi aioli — was definitely a contender for me until I spied the praline shrimp salad. With six jumbo grilled shrimp, brown sugar-baked pecans, gorgonzola bleu cheese, mustard vinaigrette and baby field greens, I was nearly sold. That is, until I saw the baked rosemary chicken ($14), which was encrusted in rosemary parmesan breading and drizzled with a lemon butter sauce. Officially sold!
Rita was set on the crab tortellini, but when our server Steven came to take our order, she impulsively switched to the shrimp pesto penne pasta ($15). Despite a tempting sweet potato crab soup, Rita and I decided to have salads with our dinner. She went with Caesar while I chose a house salad with balsamic vinaigrette.
Steven had left bread with rosemary garlic olive oil, which was extraordinarily flavorful and had a nice spice to it. Our unexpectedly large salads came out next. We were about two bites in when our appetizer, which we’ve always been accustomed to having before our salads, made its appearance. A quick request to Steven ensured our dinners wouldn’t come out until we were done with the tuna.
The appetizer was eight rare slices of sashimi-grade ahi tuna lightly dusted with sesame seeds and drizzled with the wasabi dressing, which was smooth and zippy, but not overly so. Had Rita not been there, I may have licked the plate.
Steven checked in as he saw us winding down on our tuna to ask if we were ready for our entrees. Having enjoyed the appetizer so much, we couldn’t wait to see our dinners.
Rita’s mountain of penne pasta was topped with six jumbo grilled shrimp. The pasta was dotted with sun-dried tomatoes, and she was pleasantly surprised to find the dish was creamy, not oily as some pesto-based dishes can be. The bite I helped myself to was very tasty.
We both agreed, by far, that the star of our meal was my rosemary chicken. Not only was it a huge portion, but its flavor was absolutely delicious. The chicken was slightly crispy on the outside and moist and tender inside. The breading was amazing and had a kick similar to the olive oil, which nicely played off the delicate sauce. The entrée was accompanied by a smattering of crisp green beans and garlic smashed potatoes, which were complete with skins and homemade lumps — just how the Mouth likes them best.
Rita and I ended up taking half our meals home and nixed dessert despite Arena having my favorite cake — red velvet — on the menu.
As we walked out, I was thoroughly impressed. I knew Arena Bar and Grill had a great happy hour, but now I know it is also a fantastic dining establishment, too. Plus, our server Steven was friendly, attentive and accommodating, the prices are reasonable and the atmosphere is comfortable and fun.
Now if I could just stop thinking about that rosemary chicken. …
• Arena Bar and Grill
380 Coal St., Wilkes-Barre
Wednesday-Sunday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m. (bar open until 2 a.m.)
All major credit cards accepted.