Pharos Pizza and the Soul of Edmonton

Sit inside Pharos Pizza, in one of their 1970’s leather seat booths, and look across the street. Poised like a vulture studying its next meal is a Domino’s take-out counter. The ground zero of the fast food incursion into the Edmonton historical district of Old Strathcona happened a mere block down, where a KFC, a Taco Bell and a McDonald’s stand shoulder-to-shoulder, like a scrum entering the rival team’s penalty zone. Domino’s lurks dangerously close to High-Level Diner and Pharos, testing the waters.

For a while, Pharos seemed impervious to these market pressures. It’s easy to imagine that their menu hasn’t changed in 40 years of business. Every pizza or pasta they serve is custom made to order, and offer a simple, quaint elegance that must have made it a prime dating spot fourty years ago. For example, soft drinks are served in tiny 250 ml glasses, a ghost of an era before the litre jug became standard.

When visiting a place like this, it’s tempting to associate its timelessness with a form of immortality. But in less than a month, Pharos will close its doors, finally yielding to commercial pressures. The Garneau building has a new owner, and he is raising the yearly rent above their annual income. In other words, they’re being forced out of business.

There is no doubt that whoever will replace Pharos in their prime location will have the business acumen and the marketing power to pay the high rent. Someone, say, with deep corporate pockets, who can cut production costs with more efficient methods and supply systems. They will probably offer soft drinks in extra-large format, too.

The story of Pharos, sadly, is that of every mom and pop shop, every old-fashioned pizza joint or hot dog stand in North America. Thriving historical places such as Montreal’s Schwartz’s are the exception. There’s a reason these little pieces of local history are rare: their existence is a struggle in the currents of a globalized food industry. They are more concerned with authenticity and the human touch than they are with franchise scaling and corporate earnings.

“Local” as a food word is becoming trendy, but boutique bistros with seasonal menus are kind of missing the point. The real soul of many North American cities, including Edmonton, can be found in these pizza joints and hamburger stands. It’s the tragedy of these places that no foodie will stand up to their defense when the corporate food industry moves in for the kill.

The story of Pharos is the story of the Western world in the age of the industrial food chain. There might not be much appeal beyond the nostalgic in another spaghetti and meatball joint going out of business. But every time a burger joint goes out of business, another piece of our collective soul fades away.

And with Pharos passing away, so does another piece of Edmonton’s soul.

Pharos Pizza will close down for good in the month of June. This is your last chance to try Edmonton’s best pizza while enjoying a slice of Edmonton’s history. Pharos Pizza is located at 8708 109 Street, next to the Garneau Theater.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

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