By Recker McDowell
Gilbert — already the East Valley’s ‘cool kid’ — just got a bit cooler with Sam Fox’s Culinary Dropout at The Yard opening in the Heritage District.
‘Downtown Gilbert’ is already a walkable home to other popular restaurants and bars in the middle of suburbia.
The new 25,000-square-foot Culinary Dropout location is both a testament and a test to Gilbert’s restaurant row and how the farming community turned bedroom suburbia has become a foodie hub.
Culinary Dropout is another addition to the Gilbert restaurant row mix. Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row, Grubstak, Barrio Queen, Postino’s, Oregano’s, Pomo Pizzeria, Snooze and other concepts (including Sam Fox’s Zinburger) are already there.
OHSO Brewery opened there last year.
Gilbert’s restaurant hub hasn’t seen concepts falter. The locations have routinely been top performers for their operators. But the new Culinary is larger than many of the existing eateries and is drawing plenty of attention. The restaurant had wait of 45 minutes to an hour for dinner during the work week.
It could test other restaurants and bars competitive mettle.
What it is not testing is how Gilbert grew its non-descript ‘downtown’ into a walkable foodie and happy hour destination with a farmers’ markets and arts events.
And it wasn’t the unbridled marketplace and private property rights that spurred the growth. The town government has controlled most of the properties and development in the Heritage District.
That might sound like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) style socialism to some on the right but it allowed the town to pick and choose who it wanted to land on its Gilbert Road strip.
The result has been partnerships with the likes Fox and Gilbert visionary Joe Johnston in the Heritage area. Johnston opened Joe’s Real BBQ in 1998 and Liberty Market in 2008 in redeveloped historic buildings in Gilbert’s ‘old town’.
Johnston — who also developed the Agritopia, neo-suburban development — was the risk taker who showed the path and the viability for others. Other areas in need of redevelopment and revitalization need someone like that to be the point person, the first person through the door.
Gilbert — which now has a population of more than 242,000 — has been measured and picky with how it develops its Gilbert Road old town stretch in between Guadalupe and Elliot roads.
That’s also contrary to some of the go-go development and growth that hasn’t always worked in Arizona.
Mayor Jenn Daniels is a rising Republican star and the restaurants help her shine.
Gilbert’s restaurant growth has also benefitted from the economy with its eateries landing during the current expansion. The East Valley’s job gains and growth have also helped. Timing is everything.
The restaurant row may have its overall mettle tested when the economy slows again.
But for now, Gilbert is the popular kid.