In partnership with Visit Tucson

A community dinner in the middle of the Sonoran Desert helps foster connections to others and the land

When an Arizona couple founded Cloth & Flame, their hope was to unite people through stunning scenery, family-style menus, and ‘fun friends’

Photo: Danny Upshaw

It’s a date with myself, and the first time I will attend a multicourse dinner completely alone. Before heading out, I meet with my hair stylist, who takes inspiration from my dress and places a flower barrette in my hair. I get in my car, ready to make the drive from Phoenix to Tucson, feeling like a real desert rose. 

This is not an ordinary dinner. I’ve come to find out that Tucson is UNESCO’s first American City of Gastronomy and I feel proud. It wasn’t necessarily Tucson’s restaurant scene that earned it the title back in 2015. It was the agricultural history (which dates back to the O’odhams), the thirst for sustainability, the attention paid to local produce, and the use of that produce by resident chefs and restaurateurs.

Community dinner Tucson table and guests
This is no ordinary dinner. | Photo: Danny Upshaw

The dinner I’m attending is being put on by Cloth and Flame, a destination dining company started by Matt Cooley and his wife Olivia Laux. The name Cloth and Flame originates from the couple’s first joint business, which took people on hot air balloon tours. Still aiming to maintain a sense of adventure, Cloth and Flame now hosts special events and gatherings, all of which take place against unique natural backdrops. Today’s community dinner is open to the public, took over a month to plan, and is located at Under Canvas Tucson—a spectacular spot directly adjacent to Saguaro National Park

Canvas and cactus

I park my car and walk to the check-in tent. It’s open and tall but, most importantly, it’s a respite from the afternoon heat. Immediately the charm of the landscape overtakes me. Creamy canvas tents are scattered throughout the rusty desert, blending in with the towering saguaro cacti.

On the way to my assigned tent, my eyes fall on a 100-foot-long wooden dining table. Delicate lights hang from poles high above the table. Servers are decorating the place settings with flowers and plants from the surrounding terrain. Half of the diners will face the Rincon Mountains, and the other half will face the sunset. The setting is breathtaking. 

Community dinner Tucson table and chairs
Seating is scattered throughout the property. | Photo: Danny Upshaw
Community dinner Tucson couch and giant saguaro cactus
Giant saguaro cacti overlook the scene. | Photo: Danny Upshaw

Further back beyond the long table, the chefs are busy preparing and cooking in the food tent. Three different chefs are contributing to tonight’s dinner, with each course taking inspiration from Tucson’s Indigenous food history. All proceeds from the dinner will be donated to the Sonoran Institute, a local non-profit that works to protect and preserve the environment, and educate communities on ways to live harmoniously with neighboring lands  

Tastes like autumn

The dining experience starts at 5 p.m. with cocktails and appetizers at the bar. The desert sky is a vast, uncontaminated blue—a perfect contrast to the pale green of the saguaros and the deep amber of the drinks being passed around. Tucson’s Royal Room offers a delicious Whiskey Del Bac cocktail appropriately named Ontoño, or autumn. But if a cocktail of whiskey, turmeric honey, pineapple, and lime is not your thing, they also serve red and white wine. Chef Carlos Figueroa compliments the drinks with exquisite blue corn tacos. The tortillas come from Maiz Tucson, a micro tortilleria focused on heirloom corn varieties. The corn is actually grown in Mexico and then stone ground at their shop in Tucson. I snag a taco from a passing wooden tray and try a bite. I savor tomatoes, corn, peppers, and squash. But my favorite part is the subtle kick of heat at the end.  

Community dinner Tucson golden cocktail whiskey
The Royal Room’s delicious Whiskey Del Bac cocktail. | Photo: Danny Upshaw

As the sun begins to set, we are called to the dinner table. I’ve made friends with a few people at the event, and we decide to sit together. Before we start the meal, Cooley gives a brief introduction, ending with these words: “We live at a time where you often get rid of ‘fun friends’ for political views. But we believe that if you sit across from someone and share a meal with them, you forget your differences.”

The courses

The dinner turns out to be a multisensory experience of flavors. The aromas of the food mingle with those of the evening desert. There’s the sound of new friends’ voices as they tell stories, and the occasional touch as someone asks you to pass the plate. Through all of it, we’re surrounded by the darkening desert scenery, the beauty of the flower-covered table, and the hanging lights and flickering candles that illuminate it all.  

The courses are a result of the ingenuity behind three different chefs: Michael Babcock of Instrumental Hospitality, Cassie Shortino of Tratto Phoenix, and Olivia Girard of Le Dinersaur. 

The first dish is a roasted butternut squash with Tucson white pomegranate, yogurt, charred green onions, and chilis. The crunch from the pomegranate seeds plays perfectly against the mellow yogurt and the soft sweetness of the squash. 

Next up is a fall salad with pickled pears, apples, dates, pecans, and mint topped with a prickly pear kombucha vinaigrette. I get a little of everything in one bite—fresh, sweet, and tart all meld together.  

After the main course—a cassoulet of smoked beef birria, pima grits, pickled red onions, fresh radish cilantro, and cotija cheese—it’s finally time for dessert. Staying true to the Indigenous food theme, we are served a blue corn tres leches cake, with a dollop of mascarpone whip and cascading crumbles of chopped pecans on top. Created by Girard, the shape of the cake is reminiscent of a French religieuse, her father’s favorite pastry. Everyone around the table revels in the taste. 

Community dinner Tucson table and guests sunset and lights
Good friends and food under a canopy of lights. | Photo: Danny Upshaw

If it’s great dialogue and easy friendship that Cooley and Laux are hoping to foster at these dinners, then they have succeeded. People bond around the table. They stay up talking and laughing long after dinner is done and the plates have been cleared. As for me, I found eight new “fun friends” on this solo dining experience—an experience I will never forget.

If you go

Cloth and Flame regularly hosts events and dinners in and around Tucson. You can find out more about their events here. You can also visit Saguaro National Park any time. The park is open to vehicles from sunrise to sunset every day. A $20 entrance fee is required, and includes access to both the Tucson Mountain District (West) and the Rincon Mountain District (East).