Once home to only a few cherished restaurants, downtown Gilbert is now a paradise for foodies with a vast array of restaurants offering a diverse selection of fare.

Gilbert is cooking.

For years, you could find some good food downtown – today’s thriving Heritage District – at places such as Joe’s Real BBQ, which marks 20 years this year, and The Farmhouse Restaurant, approaching its 30th anniversary next year.

But a few years into the 21st century, things started to blossom. Oregano’s Pizza and the upscale Liberty Market opened, followed soon by the arrival of Postino East in an once-moribund building that housed a series of short-lived restaurants before it was radically remodeled.

With an eye toward turning the onetime center of the so-called Hay Capital of the World into a vibrant urban core, town officials looked for opportunities to lure other restaurateurs downtown and a whole line of eateries with different fare began springing up.

Ten years later, the new menus keep moving in and sweetening the area for food lovers.

And it’s no longer just in downtown Gilbert.

“Over the past five years, Gilbert has seen an influx of independently owned and operated restaurant concepts open within the community,” said Dan Henderson, director of the Gilbert Office of Economic Development.

“These unique dining experiences, along with the influx of entertainment establishments, have contributed to Gilbert being named ‘Phoenix’s Coolest Suburb’ (Thrillist) and Phoenix New Times naming the Heritage District a ‘top food neighborhood in Metro Phoenix.’

“These unique restaurant and entertainment amenities assist Gilbert’s economic development efforts as we attract, grow and retain business, investors and talented workers,” he added.

In the last five years alone, Gilbert has added nearly 150 restaurants to a current total of 595, according to county Health Department records.

That brings it closer to Chandler's total of 793 restaurants. Tempe has 880 and Mesa 1,386, county records show.

By comparison, Phoenix is home to 4,332 restaurants – about a third of the total 12,224 in Maricopa County.

Restaurants in new buildings and repurposed older structures reaffirm that Gilbert residents don’t have to find quality food and good times by driving to Scottsdale, Tempe or Chandler – or even downtown Gilbert.

Established East Valley restaurateurs, including Gilbert’s Joe Johnston and Mesa’s Frank Estadt, have opened venues in Gilbert. And newcomers, such as Arizona BBQ Company, American Poutine Company, Steak and Stone and the Flying Basset Brewing Co., have opened or are going to do so.

This is also the year of craft beer in Gilbert, following the success of the town’s first brewery, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company, which opened in 2012.

Two new locations are in the Heritage District: OHSO Brewery & Distillery, with 40-plus beers on tap and food, and Brass Tap, serving more than 300 global varieties and a family-friendly menu.

Just south, Desert Monks in Town Center on Gilbert Road is expected to open before summer.

A new culinary center outside downtown is Agritopia, at Higley and Ray roads.

Formerly the Johnston Family Farm, the 160-acre development began in the early 2000s and comprises residential, commercial, restaurants and an 11.3-acre urban farm in a unique small footprint. 

“It is a walkable community in a fantastic town. The people of Gilbert and Agritopia are huge supporters of the restaurants and businesses,” said William Johnston, business manager for Gilbert-based Johnston Properties/Agritopia,

His company is developing the majority of the commercial uses in the community. 

A Gilbert resident and graduate of ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, he’s the son of Joe Johnston, who founded The Coffee Plantation in the late 1980s and since has opened Joe’s Real BBQ, Joe’s Farm Grill and Liberty Market. 

To date, the restaurants in Agritopia include Johnston’s Farm Grill, The Coffee Shop, Fire and Brimstone, The Uprooted Kitchen, 12 West Brewing, Garage East and Backyard Taco.

The upcoming component, a joint venture project with IPA, the developer of Generations at Agritopia, is Epicenter at Agritopia, a vertical mixed-use project that focuses on local businesses. 

The 20-acre Epicenter community will include 287 multi-family units above the commercial. 

Six new restaurants at Epicenter are expected by next year including Obon Sushi; Bird Modern Kitchen and Bar, both Tucson-based; Gadzooks, a Phoenix-based enchilada restaurant, and the Rice Shop, focusing on Chinese/Asian cuisine from the Gilbert residents who own The Coffee Shop.

“The Epicenter family is going to be a very solid community of restaurateurs and retailers that focuses on amazing guest experiences,” Johnston said.

Another longtime East Valley company, Waldo’s BBQ, opened its fourth location in Gilbert, at 1524 E. Williams Field Road.

The location seats 200, with a patio, a private banquet room for up to 40 and a large indoor/outdoor bar with 33 beers on draft.

The Gilbert Waldo’s offers a similar menu to the one at the original location, an East Mesa landmark which opened in 1993 at Greenfield and Main streets.

But the Gilbert location is a bit more up-scale in looks than the Mesa's Waldo's.

As co-owner Frank Estadt explained:

“We’re in an old funky building there – which we’re really proud of.”

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