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When does a place feel like a place, and when does it feel like a product?
I’ve spent the last week helping my mom pack up her house and move away from the Idaho town where I was raised and where she’s lived since 1984. If you’ve ever helped someone with this kind of move (or done it yourself) you know how it can vacuum up the rest of your life. (I’ve moved myself plenty of times in the past — but moving a parent is another animal altogether). That’s what happened this past week, to the point that even the weekly threads were sucked from my mind.
There was little time for sentimentality, but I don’t even know that I’d have it: the house my mom currently lives in is not the one I grew up in, and sites of potential nostalgia have largely soured as the town and state have doubled-down on a mean and deeply sanctimonious brand of politics. But this isn’t a post about the way that Idaho’s abortion bans are making it incredibly difficult to hire doctors, which has trickledown effects on the entire population. This also isn’t a post about the number of trucks with AR-15 decals in the grocery store parking lot.
This is a post about two of the best things about my hometown — two things that have utterly refused optimization — both of which, perhaps ironically, are located just across the river in Washington state.
Fazzari’s Pizza opened in 1985 and as far as I can tell the only thing they’ve changed about the entire operation is the existence of a website and modest increases in price. The building itself — the same. The sign — the same. The maroon polo shirts and ballcaps — absolutely the same. The long tables big enough for an entire t-ball team, the slightly elevated corner of the restaurant that used to be the smoking section, the physical menus, the red plastic cups filled with crushed ice and Root Beer, the soft golden lighting, all the same.
This is a place that knows what it is, and what it is is the best pizza, without question, for six hours in any direction. It’s not deep dish, it’s not “wood-fired,” it’s not fancy — it’s just light and perfect, whether you order a plain pepperoni or my personal all-time favorite, the Shotse, which answers the question what if you made a reuben….into a pizza?
Maybe the Fazarri brothers knew that people would be initially befuddled by this style of pizza and want to understand how it was made, or maybe they just knew that there’d always be a horde of kids running around — whatever the reason, they put a sort of mini-observation window along the length of the kitchen, which meant that as soon as the adults placed an order, you could run over there, hoist your butt up on the rickety iron bar, and watch a bunch of portly men with flour and sauce smeared all over their aprons make your pizza. What a blessing this must have been for our parents, as they sat with all the other parents with their pitchers of ice cold foaming Coors Light.
You can’t order online. Forget about Postmates. They’ve never remodeled. And when I was there to pick up enough pizza so that we could eat it for at least three meals, I marveled at how lived-in it felt, how inviting. Not shabby, just a place you really want to be.
As I wrote about last week, optimization and remodel culture robs spaces of that heart. I’m sure MOD Pizza, the latest upstart in the pizza world, makes a lot more money. It’s slicker, faster, easier. But it’s not a place, it’s a product — a profit center. You can always tell, can’t you, when a restaurant’s primary purpose is to make a bunch of people who’d probably never eat there a whole bunch of money.
There’s some money in my hometown but not a lot of it. There’s the members of what Patrick Wyman calls the American Gentry — aka, the people with car dealership money who low-key run the town. Those people are what keep the one to two utterly forgettable high-end steak house iterations in business. Otherwise, there’s fast food; there’s the four mid-range restaurants owned by the same guy where the menus/themes are ostensibly different and feature a lot of waffle fries and large salads but all the food, as my mom says, tastes like Sysco; and then there’s the places.
Fazarri’s, of course. Effie’s, whose main attraction is a burger the size of a pizza. Sharp’s Burger Ranch, where you can still sit on the saddle while you eat your burger with fry sauce. Bojack’s, a supper club in the old style, where spaghetti comes out as a side for every meal. And Hogan’s — which, like Fazarri’s, is in Clarkston — which makes the best food in town out of a tiny bar kitchen.
I mean look at that sign! It no longer sells sporting goods, and they recently re-did the ancient booths, but I’m guessing you can imagine what this place is like inside: like a place. A place that sells the best version of the local delicacy (bite-size steak, which is essentially steak cut up, seasoned with a specific marinade, then either fried or grilled) but also an avocado bánh mì. A live music venue, an owner who seemingly knows everyone, plus the closest you can get to a gay bar in the valley. A real, deeply beloved place.
Whether you grew up in a small town or a small neighborhood in a big city, you’ve probably watched similar places get demolished or simply disappear. Many simply were not compatible with the particular demands of keeping a restaurant open during a pandemic. Others couldn’t stand up to ever-rising rents, or simply lost the long battle against fast casual.
I don’t hate The Olive Garden for dinner or Panera for lunch or Starbucks for breakfast. I love a Spinach Feta Wrap! I also the impulse that drives me towards it — as the least joyful, most optimizing part of myself. The Spinach Feta Wrap Me is the Me who doesn’t have time or wherewithal to risk a bad breakfast, who wants something predictable and nourishing with quality control, even if that means eating something faintly reminiscent of a thin leather flipflop. The Spinach Feta Wrap Me is also Sad Desk Salad Me, the me who’s rather work through lunch than pause and spend it with others — or in any other place — than in front of my computer. Spinach Feta Wrap Me gets a lot of shit done and does her ab routine every day and tracks her steps and HAS NO FUN AT ALL.
I won’t miss Lewiston. I will miss those indelible places — and will carry their memory with me as I keep trying to find and frequent and fall in love with more. ●
Since we didn’t have threads this week, let’s do one here: What’s the best place in your past or present town or neighborhood? What, exactly, gives it its placeness? (You can also eulogize places that are no longer here, but I especially want to hear about ones that are still here). As always, don’t be butts about favorite places and let’s keep this one of the good places on the internet.