Joe's Real BBQ is in a building that was a Safeway grocery store when it opened in 1929.
Joe's Real BBQ is in a building that was a Safeway grocery store when it opened in 1929.
David B. Moore

Design-First Phoenix Restaurants: Joe Johnston's Gilbert Icons

SECOND OF A THREE-PART SERIES: The men and women who run some of Phoenix’s most popular restaurants let their food speak for itself, but the walls of their restaurant spaces can’t actually talk, so we asked each of these entrepreneurs for the stories behind the aesthetic of their restaurants. In the second installment of this series, we chat with Joe Johnston about his iconic Gilbert restaurant spaces.

It’s not clear right away how to pronounce the name of Joe Johnston’s most recent endeavor, Barnone. “Bar none” might be your first instinct, until you find out that the multiuse space is housed in a silver, cylindrical building that used to be the barn on the Johnston family farm.

“So,” we ask. “Should I be pronouncing it ‘Barn One?’”

“I’d just as soon you pronounced it ‘Bar-non-ay,’” Johnston chuckles. Apparently, in addition to being an engineer, restaurateur, and urban planner, Joe Johnston is also an Italophile. He shows off the Vespa workshop he has on property, and a picture on his phone of an Ape, a tiny, ridiculous-looking workman’s van that we’ve never seen outside of Italy itself.

“There are only two of these in Arizona,” he says with a proud smile. Italians, he says, do not get enough credit for their engineering. It’s always about the Germans. But those Italians; well, they put as much care into form as function.

“If you open up a Vespa,” says Johnston, “it is just as beautiful on the inside as the outside. And the machinery is the part no one is even supposed to be seeing.”

It turns out, Johnston and his team decided to leave the name of Barnone ambiguous, in order to provoke conversation; like most of Johnston’s endeavors, there is both form and function to Barnone.

Joe Johnston's Gilbert-based restaurant empire includes Barnone, Joe's Farm Grill, Liberty Market, and Joe's Real BBQ.
Joe Johnston's Gilbert-based restaurant empire includes Barnone, Joe's Farm Grill, Liberty Market, and Joe's Real BBQ.
David B. Moore

The space hosts a nanobrewery, a custom stationary studio, a laser wood-cutting workspace, and an organic eatery, as well as Johnston Machine Co., a facility that manufactures culinary tools from salt-shaker heads to coffee-bean roasters. This is Johnston’s pet project; his great-grandfather invented the Kitchen Aid mixer and what would become Hobart Manufacturing, and to say Johnston likes to tinker with machines is like saying Picasso liked to doodle.

He explains Barnone as a place where people who are passionate about their craft can practice with others who are equally fervent. And, as is the case with Johnston’s Gilbert restaurants, the design is intended to create human connections and build community.

By now, you may already know about Joe’s Real BBQ and Liberty Market — Johnston’s restaurants in downtown Gilbert — which have often been credited with revitalizing the area. The latter is certainly the “trendier” of the two spots, though located (like most of downtown) in a historically significant building from 1935. The restaurant offers a classic bistro menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the artwork pays homage to the building’s origins as a grocery store: Look up to see a line of mini shopping carts above a row of booths.

Across the intersection, Joe’s Real BBQ has a nostalgic aesthetic; the old brick building from 1929 (originally a Safeway, it was an oddly shaped church when he found it in the late ’90s, Johnson says) has been reimagined as a WWII-era smokehouse. Servers wear aprons and paper hats (think Johnny Rockets, but with a lot of brisket), and a John Deere tractor from 1948 looms on one side of the dining hall. Opposite the tractor is a massive mural by artist Joe Coplin entitled The Fruit of Our Labor, commissioned to honor the agricultural history of the area.

Which brings us to the part of Gilbert Johnston knows best. Along with his two brothers, Johnston grew up on what used to be farmland, near Higley and Ray roads (about 10 minutes from downtown Gilbert). He chose his old homestead as the site for Joe’s Farm Grill, a small coffee shop, the aforementioned Barnone, and a master-planned community called Agritopia.

In fact, Joe’s Farm Grill, which has been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and which just last month celebrated its 10-year anniversary, is housed in Johnston’s childhood home. Built in the ’60s, in a ranch-style slump block, the building was transformed into the burger stand you see today, with a menu that offers food sourced directly from the surrounding farmland.

Joe's Farm Grill, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in May, is housed in Johnston’s childhood home.
Joe's Farm Grill, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in May, is housed in Johnston’s childhood home.
David B. Moore

“This was the kitchen,” Johnston says as we stand in the spacious lobby, with its floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook sloping, shady trees. It’s not hard to picture Johnston and his brothers climbing those trees as kids; a 1967 photo of the entire family in front of their cotton fields hangs in the dining room. Add to that the butterfly roof, Johnston’s framed baseball mitt from his Little League days, and the Jetson-ian feel of the Midcentury Modern decor and the result is pleasantly disorienting. What year is this again?

“We wanted to build, or rather rebuild, the restaurant as if it was a burger stand in 1967, because that’s when the house was built,” he explains.

The neighboring café, The Coffee Shop, used to be the Johnston family tractor shed, and across a small path is Barnone, which, as we mentioned, really was a barn. The whole thing feels a little Blast From the Past (you know, that movie where a Cold War-era Christopher Walken builds a bomb shelter that exactly resembles his actual home?), especially with the idealized community of Agritopia bustling happily in the distance.

Johnston looks down from on high at Barnone, which used to be a barn on his family's farm.
Johnston looks down from on high at Barnone, which used to be a barn on his family's farm.
David B. Moore

And yet … you can’t help but want to stay. You start to kind of wish you lived in this community, where you run into your neighbor in line for coffee, and where you know exactly where your meat comes from, as your family chows down on burgers.

This is no accident, of course. Johnston references Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community as a source of inspiration when planning a space. The book extols the virtue of a place that is neither home nor work, where you can linger and socialize without someone else controlling your timeline.

The French have their cafes, the Germans their beer gardens, but what about Americans? Johnston seeks to build community in each one of his restaurants, like the days of yore — where people lived interconnected lives in villages that shared a general store, bookshop, and park, as opposed to the isolating suburbs of sprawling Phoenix.

It is precisely this desire that seems to connect all of Johnston’s seemingly standalone concepts; the design of each is precisely conducive to his mission. Self-service allows you to control your own time at his restaurants, and a reasonable price point means a low barrier to entry. There are other components that tie together his family of concepts: Johnston has a thing for crazy bathrooms, and a visit to any of his restaurants would not be complete without a couple of trips to the loo. He also loves to visually represent transparency (mirroring that of the menu) and, as a result, customers can look directly into the kitchen at any one of his venues.

But he’s ever the engineer, and it’s only when you pull back the face of the clock that you see the true beauty of the machinery working to make it all happen. Until then, you are happy to eat, drink, and chat awhile in any one of Joe’s restaurants, totally at ease, if unable to put your finger on what is so damn familiar about the place.

Liberty Market, built in 1935, pays homage to its original occupant, a grocery store.
Liberty Market, built in 1935, pays homage to its original occupant, a grocery store.
David B. Moore

For each of the restaurateurs featured in this series, the first step in a new project is the same: Look at a space, and ask what it needs. On Friday, we talk to Chris Bianco about his soulful restaurants that let the vintage details of their well-worn buildings shine through.

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