Upgraded Carl's Tavern in Wilkins will maintain its roots

Owners to tear down, rebuild

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The very first Carl's Tavern was established in 1953 in Braddock at 601 Braddock Ave. by Carl Osterholm, who saw that building bars in booming steel towns was a profitable business model.

Over the next two decades, he and his family set up 10 other Carl's Tavern locations in mill towns throughout the Pittsburgh area. When he died, his daughter and son-in-law, Christel and Russ Harrison, took over. As Pittsburgh's steel era came to a close, the Harrisons slowly started selling off the family franchise.

"My thing was to just have one place and run it properly," Mr. Harrison said. By 1976, only one Carl's Tavern remained -- on Business Route 22 in Wilkins.

The landmark bar and restaurant will be demolished in August, but tavern regulars and lovers of Carl's classic fish sandwich should not despair: A new Carl's Tavern with an extra 1,000 square feet of space is scheduled to open on the site in January.

The long, narrow, 2,200- square-foot building is barely wide enough to accommodate a table of four. Mr. Harrison said the building, which was probably built in the late 1940s, has problems ranging from leaky heating and air-conditioning systems to small, old restrooms. The Harrisons plan to put in new heating and cooling systems and appliances.

The Harrisons' sons, Russ and Brock, both work at Carl's as bartenders -- Russ for 16 years, Brock for eight years.

The younger Russ Harrison noted Carl's is "one of the only mom-and-pop places on 22," a suburban highway largely lined with strip malls, chain restaurants and fast food joints.

"We're not trying to be anyone else," he said.

The Harrisons said they aren't trying to change the "feel" of the tavern; they still want it to be a place where doctors, lawyers, steelworkers and students can sit down next to each other and enjoy a beer and a sandwich.

"The people bring that feel," the elder Russ Harrison said.

But there will be changes.

Accents of glass and steel will surround the bar, which is currently a simple rectangle in a low-ceilinged room, ringed by basic black bar stools. Reclaimed bricks and timber from a demolition in Braddock and Western Pennsylvania hardwoods will line the walls.

The Harrisons emphasized that the menu won't change much, perhaps just focusing more on local ingredients. Same goes for the beer -- Carl's currently has about a dozen draft beers, but after the renovation, that number will more than double, with a focus on local suppliers such as the East End Brewing Co.

Brock Harrison said the family wants Carl's to remain a place where generations of Pittsburghers bring their family for dinner. He said the bar attracts everyone from students to professionals, and a patron recently celebrated her 89th birthday at Carl's.

And Pittsburghers, notorious for remembering "where things used to be," still associate the last remaining Carl's Tavern with the original in Braddock, asking, "Is this the same one that was in Braddock?" Brock Harrison said.

Over the next several months, the elder Russ Harrison said, the family will "iron out all of the problems we've seen over 41 years." But come January, Carl's Tavern will still be the same one that was in Braddock, just updated.

"We didn't want to get left in the dust," he said.


Annie Siebert: asiebert@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.


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