The Great Gilbert Getaway

Photos by Susan JAMES
Barnone at Agritopia.

By Susan JAMES

Just an hour’s flight from LA lies the small town of Gilbert, Arizona. Hiding in plain sight only 20 miles southwest of Phoenix, this desert gem is the family getaway/weekend escape you’ve been looking for. And don’t be fooled by its size; Gilbert offers cutting edge attractions. There’s live music everywhere, from bluesy jazz at the speakeasy-style White Rabbit in the Historic District to Tuesday evening easy listening at the Garage-East winery and country-western among the sliders and slaw at Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row. There’s cleverly constructed design everywhere, too, from Tia Hawkes’ original costumes for the musicals performed at the elegant Hale Centre Theatre to individually designed cocktails mixed by Tyler and Dylan at the White Rabbit to re-imagined tintype images produced from selfies in the photo lab of Art Intersection.

The iconic water tower.

Above all there’s the food. Gilbert is turning itself into a foodie haven in the heart of the Arizona desert and the variety is amazing. Farm-to-table is the theme. Start with down-home cooking at The Gilbert House, a tiny pre-war bungalow that serves a great breakfast brunch starring ever-popular favorites like eggs Benedict, blueberry pancakes and house-made rhubarb muffins. Ingredients are local and the emphasis is on homemade. For a unique lunch try The Uprooted Kitchen at Agritopia, an organic, plant-based restaurant in a repurposed Quonset hut called Barnone that also houses a craft community of woodworkers, vintners, leatherworkers, bakers and brewers. The Uprooted Kitchen uses local produce, some grown right outside its door, to prepare such succulent, seasonal dishes as black bean chili with cashew sour cream and lentil curry salad bowl with house-made seeded crackers.

Topo snack stand, Historic District

Still hungry? At award-winning Garage-East in the Agritopia complex, try a charcuterie tray featuring savory sausage, cheese curd and fresh honeycomb paired with a smooth glass of wine from Dos Cabezas Winery. Or if you’re in the mood for something sweet, the prickly pear ice cream softie at Topo, a sidewalk stand in the Historic District sporting a giant gopher on its roof, is a tasty pick-me-up. Order it with a coating of chocolate and eat it in one of the hammocks under the trees in the park next door.

Then there’s dinner. Absolutely fabulous is Nico Heirloom Kitchen in the Historic District. Technically a chef-centered Italian restaurant, Nico’s is so much more. A group of us ate family style, sampling everything from char-roasted octopus with pickled onion to filet tips with poblano crema and gorgonzola to artichoke fritte with parmesan aioli. The service was outstanding and the main dishes were spectacular, particularly the melt-in-your mouth braised short ribs and the spicy scampi with house-made pasta. Did I mention the desserts? I think I would drive all the way to Gilbert just to have another helping of its butterscotch pudding. When you visit, do not miss Nico’s.

Gilbert Now

Cosmopolitan as it seems, at its roots Gilbert is still a western town where cowboy boots are as popular as Nikes, rodeos still flourish and the Historical Museum is housed in a 1913 schoolhouse where students once arrived by farm wagon. Celebrating its 100th anniversary next year, the town was founded by an eccentric rancher named Bobby Gilbert just four decades after the notorious shoot-out at the O.K. Corral in what was then the wild and wooly Arizona Territory. Gilbert realized that the town would need a permanent water supply and pioneered a system of canals that still criss-cross the Valley of the Sun where the greater Phoenix metropolitan area spreads out between the Superstition Mountains to the northeast and the Sierra Estrella to the southwest. Appropriately the main symbol of the town is the Gilbert water tower that rises above the town’s Historic District. Lit up at night, it seems to spell out Bobby Gilbert’s message, “We’re here and we mean to stay.”

In the last 100 years Gilbertines have put a lot of thought into their town. Agritopia, where both Garage-East and The Uprooted Kitchen are located, was once a working farm belonging to the Johnston family. In 2015 Joe Johnston created the Johnston Family Foundation for Urban Agriculture, aka Agritopia. It’s a complex whose center is an 11-acre organic farm that grows the produce sold in the on-site farm store and powers The Uprooted Kitchen. For a nominal fee it also supplies the Gilbert community with growing allotments where locals can experiment with their own garden plots. A stroll past the chicken coops and the Biblical plant garden and through the craft shops in Barnone, the World War II Quonset hut, knits together the past and the future of Gilbert.

Gilbert Then

Another inventive investment in the land is Gilbert’s 110-acre Riparian Reserve, a water reclamation project that has created the Water Ranch. Featuring a park, a fishing lake and a series of other water features, the Riparian Reserve provides nature sanctuaries for migrating ducks, coots, pelicans and eagles that soar and swoop over the lake’s tranquil surface. A small astronomical observatory sits among walking trails and cascading streams. While watching a flight of doves executing high aerial maneuvers above a pod of pelicans coming in for a landing on the lake, it’s difficult to remember that you are sitting in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. The majestic saguaro cactus that stand sentinel near the parking lot are the preserve’s only reminders.

Another local activity that melds ancient agrarian practices and new age exercise is goat yoga. A trending craze started by local resident April Gould, who has a passion for goats, she and partner Sarah Williams have grown their goat yoga business into one of the top 10 things to do in Arizona. Earlier this year, together with 84 goats and 350 people, they claimed the title for the largest goat yoga class ever held and are listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Okay, so this I wanted to try. Crouching on a mat in a definitely unsanctioned semi-yoga stance two goats named Napoleon and Kip perched on my back while awaiting their treats. I’m not sure if my karmic center was changed but I did feel I should have a treat as well. April and Sarah said I could come back for a cow cuddling session with Daisy, their once-a-month bovine visitor.

Cuddle a cow, support a goat, eat fabulous food, taste the local wines and watch pelicans skydive over a tranquil lake. Visit Gilbert. I did and I’ll never forget it.

Goat Yoga
Ring-necked duck at the Riparian Reserve
Suguaro cactus, Riparian Reserve
The lake at the Riparian Reserve
The Uprooted Kitchen, Barnone at Agritopia
Tyler creating cocktails at the White Rabbit
Wall mural in the Historic District
William ‘Bobby’ Gilbert