Oakmont restaurant Carnivores is a crowd-pleaser
By Bill West
Published: Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 7:56 p.m.
While its logo features a Tyrannosaurus rex-looking creature feasting on pizza and a sandwich, Carnivores is no doomed dinosaur in the world of Western Pennsylvania eateries.
The Oakmont restaurant, open almost two decades now, avoids extinction through evolution.
Because of changes made by owner John Keefe and his staff during the past several years, Carnivores has evolved into one of the Pittsburgh area's premier nonchain destinations for people who desire a strong combination of sports entertainment, craft beer and food that goes beyond standard pub grub. “I think this place has the look of something you can find in Station Square or the South Side,” Keefe, 47, of Oakmont says. “You don't always find places like this in the suburbs. You're just not going to find something as fresh and crisp and easy on the eyes.”
Carnivores initially consisted of a modest bar, a few tables and a kitchen, all packed into 1,000 square feet, Keefe said. But as neighboring businesses in the shopping plaza closed, the restaurant expanded — an opportunity made possible, Keefe noted, by the willingness of the plaza's remaining stores to bump down a bit.
The latest renovation, done slightly more than two years ago, allowed Carnivores to completely redesign its layout. More room meant more TVs, all of which have DirecTV channel packages. There are now 29 in the restaurant, including eight built into the wall that cater to the desires of booth patrons.
More room also meant more beer-cooler space. Patrons can now slide open the 18 cooler doors to find as many as 500 bottle varieties, and there are 30 beers available on tap.
Keefe keeps an eye out for the next big thing. His booth televisions, for example, are controlled by touch screen modules. He embraced the outdoor dining trend by creating patio seating. And his menu, updated within the past eight months, includes made-to-order options that reflect the casual dining community's current preference for individualized items.
“I've learned a lot, and I've learned by making a ton of mistakes,” says Keefe, who had limited restaurant experience prior to becoming Carnivores' owner. “Now, after 17 years, I know what I want.”
Last week, as the Pittsburgh Penguins thumped the New York Islanders in Game 1 of their NHL playoff series, Carnivores did its part to bring the game experience to its customers. When the Pens scored each of their five goals, a barge horn sounded, and red siren lights, commonly associated with police cars and hockey goals, came to life overhead.
These effects, present for the past several years, give customers an active sports-viewing experience. Whether it's a Pens goal, a Pirates home run or a Steelers touchdown, the horn sounds, Keefe said. Sports are more than just something to throw on the televisions.
As Keefe has discovered during the past decade-plus, Carnivores' collection of televisions serves more than the sports crowd.
“I originally put them in just thinking sports, but the funny thing is that we get a lot of families in here that have younger kids ... and we now know the Disney stations and Nickelodeon as well as we know the sports stations,” Keefe says. “This is a nice way for the families to be able to come out and have a nice little night. The kids enjoy sitting here because they can watch cartoons in their booth and eat free popcorn.”
That Carnivores has become an inviting place for beer aficionados, sports fanatics, families with children, around-the-corner locals and out-of-towners alike thrills Keefe, who believes Oakmont, as a community, provides something for everyone.
“It's a walking town with really good people,” Keefe says, “and it's a town that keeps itself modernized and looking nice.”
Though Keefe knew he wanted to offer a sports-centric place with a strong beer selection when he first opened Carnivores, he chose a restaurant name that he believed would identify his business' top priority.
“I wanted to stress food right off the bat,” Keefe says. “If you serve good food, everything else will come. I didn't want to stress the beer and alcohol. … I didn't just want to open a bar. What I wanted to do was open up a real nice eatery that has a bar and has great beer.”
Carnivores' menu, executed by chef Brett Duvalle and his kitchen staff, does not stray from sports-bar staples — fried food and items best eaten with hands. But it does deviate from the norm in its efforts to offer customers items with distinct flavors.
Nowhere on the menu is the restaurant's desire to provide taste diversity more evident than in its gourmet hot dog section. The 100-percent Vienna beef hot dogs ($3.95 for one, $7.50 for two), put on the menu less than a year ago, can be paired with 10 different types of cheeses — buffalo cheddar, smoked gouda and crumbled gorgonzola stand out — as well as more than two dozen toppings, which range from ketchup to sweet barbecue to avocado to jalapenos to baked beans to french fries to hardboiled egg.
“We have a great hamburger, but I decided everybody is doing a gourmet hamburger today, so why not do gourmet hot dogs?” Keefe says. “There aren't a whole lot of places you can do to get a good hot dog.”
Carnivores offers a unique take on shrimp, as it breads, fries and sauces the seafood in the same manner it prepares chicken wings. The “shrimp like wings” ($9.50) are available by the dozen in the same 13 flavors as their chicken equivalents.
Other popular items are the eight-cut specialty pizzas ($16.95 each), the frie-and-coleslaw-topped “Carni sandwiches” and the pizza/calzone-esque wedgies ($9.95 for each except the shrimp and crab variation, which is $12.95).
Salads, soups and veggie-oriented sandwiches are available, of course. But as the name and dinosaur logo suggest, this is a place favored by those who favor their place at the top of the food chain.
Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.
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