By Srianthi Perera and Jim Walsh
Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row Restaurant in downtown Gilbert had a soft opening on a Tuesday—this particular day of the week was selected because it’s usually a slow day in the restaurant business.
“On Tuesday at 1 p.m. every single table was filled and there was an hour’s wait,” said Sean Frantz, marketing director. “We were quite filled up; it was a mix of families and kids and business people. It was a blast.”
This is the Valley’s third country-themed and entertainment-focused restaurant created by the Arizona entertainer, in collaboration with Riot Hospitality Group of Scottsdale. The other two are in Scottsdale and Tempe.
From the outset, Whiskey Row was anticipated to bring a unique vibe to the Heritage District.
It has, indeed.
The 8,700 square-feet restaurant with the ambiance of an agricultural warehouse features a 4,600 square-feet outdoor patio outfitted with a retractable screen that offers shade for those indulging within in a game of corn hole or ping pong; a stage that could comfortably accommodate a four-piece band; a large dance hall that already is reportedly being put to good use; space for a deejay and two well-stocked bars.
A kids’ menu is a first for the chain. While awaiting their orders, patrons could strategize a game of Connect 4 or stack up some enormous Jenga blocks.
On weekends, live music plays.
Already, there has been a lot of chatter on Social Media about the new addition on the block, not all of it positive. There’s talk of staying away because of the alcohol, the loud music, large crowds and heavy traffic during the evenings and nights, something out of character with Gilbert’s hitherto placid downtown.
Lynne King Smith, who owns Building 313 being constructed next door, said that the location of Whiskey Row, pat in the middle of the Heritage District, may have been reconsidered.
“The only concern is when there’s live music there and it does come right out on to the street and it’s the main corner;” she said. “If it could’ve been a block off, but then, you get into residential.”
King Smith sees two different sets of people enjoying what the place has to offer: the families with young children, who most probably won’t hang around after 9 p.m. and the nightclub set who may appreciate the entertainment that may go on until 2 a.m.
“Everybody should be able to enjoy their evening no matter where they are and that’s something that’s going to have to continue to develop as we see how the live music there affects the other spaces and other people enjoying their time,” she added.
Whiskey Row’s grand opening night featured country artist Kelsea Ballerini who performed a free concert.
The place was packed and Gilbert police kept a strong presence.
Police was “letting people know that it was safe to go there and also that they will be keeping a vigilant watch for rowdy behavior, said Sgt. Darrell Krueger, a police spokesman.
Krueger said a certain amount of nuisance calls are to be expected when there are a large number of people attending any sort of event, but especially with alcohol.
“We are guessing we will probably have a few more fights,” along with the usual number of people creating a disturbance or urinating in public, he said.
“The first thing goes when you consume alcohol is your judgment,’” he added. “People get emboldened. We would expect an increase in problems.”
The restaurant is geared to Millennials, which is the norm in the chain’s Scottsdale and Tempe locations, “but for Gilbert, we’re reaching a little bit older,” said Frantz, who has noted that extended families with their elders and young children in tow find favor in the trendy restaurant.
“We’re one hundred percent coming in here respecting and knowing that this is a very family-oriented city. Not that there aren’t young families in Tempe and Scottsdale.
In the areas specifically that we’re located, people know that they are night life-driven,” he said. “For people to think that it’s going to be exactly the same, we don’t want them to think that because that’s exactly opposite what it’s going to be.
“Yes, we will have live bands and deejays, but it’s going to still be different. We have to realize that we’re coming to an area that is not used to a night life,” he added.
Robyn Moore, another spokesperson for Whiskey Row, said that the establishment brings “a new level of entertainment to Gilbert.
“While there are many differences than the other locations, it’s still the same Whiskey Row brand that is known for its fun nightlife atmosphere,” she said. “No other venue in downtown Gilbert offers this environment and when you have people out drinking late at night, there are going to be issues. However, we are dedicated to protecting the safety of our guests and residents of Gilbert in and outside our establishment.”
Amanda Elliott, redevelopment administrator and Heritage District liaison for the town of Gilbert, mentioned the real estate term “18-hour city,” referring to a downtown that provides things to do throughout most hours of the day, but not 24 hours.
“Gilbert is a vibrant community and a place where residents and visitors access the Heritage District as their community living room,” she said. “As more arts, entertainment and events are offered in the Heritage District, it can be expected that it will encounter some growing pains along the way.”
Besides Whiskey Row, the Heritage District will also host, at last count, three more spots where alcohol will be the life of the party—Building 313, which will have a rooftop bar, OHSO Brewery and Sam Fox’s Culinary Dropout at The Yard.
“We continue to bring various departments together to evaluate things like traffic, waste management and noise within the Heritage District, and in particular, how the openings…impact the area,” Elliott said. “We are dedicated to working with business owners to ensure we are exceeding the expectations of our visitors.”
The opening was also somewhat marred by a brouhaha when a Marine veteran, Brandon Andrus, was refused admittance on account of the “22” tattooed on his neck. Military organizations say an average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day across the nation, hence, the tattoo’s reference. The restaurant, which later apologized to the veteran and tried to right matters by inviting him as a guest, was upholding a policy recommended by the police, the management said.
Krueger said Whiskey Row did not seek the advice of Gilbert police about tattoos before opening and Moore said the policy about neck tattoos was recommended by police earlier during the operation of the company’s other restaurants, in Scottsdale and Tempe.
He said Whiskey Row probably will attract a wider audience than other businesses in downtown Gilbert because it offers food, a bar and other entertainment, such as dancing and games.
Only time will tell how Gilbert will adapt to its new environment.
To King Smith, whose business pertains to events, crowds are a good sign. She remembers back in the day when people didn’t head to downtown Gilbert in the evenings or the nights because there was a paucity of things to do there.
“Crowds are good for all of us…I would much rather have a problem with parking or there’s too many people on the street or whatever; I think it’s a wonderful issue to deal with,” she said. “I don’t think anybody who has great interest in the Heritage District is going to have trouble with crowds in general. I think that piece of it will be great.”
Meanwhile, Gilbert police plans to remain vigilant and maintain a high profile. The new parking garage, to be constructed east of Gilbert Road and north of Vaughn Ave., will contain space for police and fire. Bicycle officers may also be added, a tactic that has been effective in Tempe and Scottsdale.
“People see us and they understand there is going to be a response,” Krueger said, if they behave badly.
Some are optimistic that things will eventually hit even keel.
“I think we’ll find a way to work it out and make it work for everybody,” King Smith said.
Whiskey Row is at 323 S. Gilbert Road, in the southeast corner of Gilbert Road and Vaughn Ave. Details: call 480-476-8595 or visit dierkswhiskeyrow.com/gilbert-az.