Maybe it's the affordable housing prices or the constant sunshine that attracts transplants from all over the globe, but whatever the reason, Phoenix has become the melting pot of the Southwest. It's rare to find a native Phoenician and even rarer to find one like restaurateur Joe Johnston, who manages to make even the newest desert dweller feel at home in his trio of Gilbert restaurants: Joe's Real BBQ, Liberty Market, and Joe's Farm Grill.
Johnston grew up in the slump block ranch that now houses Joe's Farm Grill and never ventured far from home. In 1995, after stints as an engineer and co-founder of the original Coffee Plantation, he opened Joe's Real BBQ in a historic brick building in Gilbert's Heritage District. The restaurant became a mainstay with local families and his smoky-sweet meats have captured awards, including several New Times Best of Phoenix picks.
While Phoenix-area developers were busy demolishing older houses to build ivory towers for businessmen and yuppie couples, Johnston wanted something different for his family's original farmland. He imagined a quiet village where neighbors would get together for coffee and swap stories about their kids and grandkids — a community with heart. Builder Scott Homes shared a similar vision. Up sprang Agritopia, a master-planned community with 15 acres of working farmland and quaint bungalows with large sitting porches. How strong is his belief in the project? Johnston and his parents were among the first homebuyers at Agritopia, and Joe's Farm Grill uses fresh produce from the community's crops.
Furthering his commitment to preserving the Valley's past, Johnston and wife Cindy bought and repurposed the nearby 1935 Liberty Market grocery building into a retro-urban eatery last year, keeping the brick walls and the adorable pink and green vintage neon sign.
By now, Gilbert's "King of the Grill" could easily have retired to a tropical island, so we're glad his desert roots run deep. Johnston still eats family meals at his restaurants. He served free drinks to Liberty Market customers on the 45th anniversary of his prized antique Faema E61 espresso maker. And every spring, he hosts "Free Barbecue Day" at Joe's Real BBQ, where guests can chat with him and score a complimentary meal. Though he still has plenty of real relations here in town, Joe Johnston always manages to make the rest of us feel like family.