Cocktails

First Taste: Cala Has a Vacation Vibe and Menu to Match

Cala is a bohemian rhapsody.
Cala is a bohemian rhapsody. Stephen Denton
Who doesn’t need a vacation right now? There’s an escape-from-everyday-life energy that we’re all craving in terms of people, places, and even food. And Cala, the new Mediterranean restaurant just opened at Senna House in Old Town Scottsdale, offers the perfect respite.

The concept for Cala, which means "cove" in Spanish, was partly the result of chef Beau MacMillan needing a vacation himself. Instantly recognizable as the name and face of Elements at Sanctuary Resort, which he opened in 2001, MacMillan has been busy for the past 20 years, beating Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America, hosting the Food Network’s Worst Cooks in America, hosting the Scottsdale Nirvana Food and Wine Festival and just generally putting Phoenix on the food map. But when Sanctuary Resort sold in 2021, it was a wake-up call that had MacMillan asking, “What should I do next?”

“It was a huge identity crisis for me,” he recalls. “I’d been institutionalized with Sanctuary and loved it, but there’s so much more in food I love.” Not only did the creative wheels start turning, but business opportunities appeared, as well. MacMillan transitioned to an elevated culinary-advisor role at Sanctuary and partnered with restaurant group Clive Collective to open interactive gaming restaurant Money, Baby! in Las Vegas in 2021, and then Cala, the kind of restaurant he says he'd want to frequent.

click to enlarge Pizza Insalata combines Fontina, Parmigiano, cherry peppers, fennel, arugula and hot honey on a puffy crust. - ALLISON YOUNG
Pizza Insalata combines Fontina, Parmigiano, cherry peppers, fennel, arugula and hot honey on a puffy crust.
Allison Young
“I wanted this to be a place where people want to come for quick bites or a $70 steak — so it really can be the experience you want,” says MacMillan. “Also, the vibe and culture is drink-driven, so I looked at it like I want people sitting at 10 on a Friday night and have cocktails and split a pizza or have a little pasta.”

First came the concept, then the team. MacMillan added executive chef Peter McQuaid, who was Elements’ youngest-ever sous chef when MacMillan hired him there at age 21, and master cocktail curator Clint Spotleson, who created drinks at Sanctuary’s Jade Bar and Herbs & Rye in Vegas before joining Cala.

The Mediterranean-inspired menu starts with bread. The house-baked Cala loaf is soft in the middle and coated in chopped fresh garlic, Aleppo peppers, and za’atar; the tearable, shareable loaves are perfect for sopping up sumptuous sides like white-bean hummus accented with crispy chickpeas and red-pepper matbucha. The roster continues with appetizers such as lamb kofta infused with housemade harissa paste and skewered on sugarcane sticks, then moves on to sophisticated salads like the grilled treviso, a slightly bitter green balanced here with smoky bacon, sweet dates, and creamy goat cheese from Crow’s Dairy.

click to enlarge The housemade harissa used in the lamb kofta contains 30 spices and Mediterranean ingredients. - @AALLSTUDIO
The housemade harissa used in the lamb kofta contains 30 spices and Mediterranean ingredients.
@aallstudio
At the heart of the menu are pizzas and pasta. “As simple as pizza and pasta are, it’s really hard to do right,” says McQuaid. “We have a beautiful pasta extruder from Italy in the back and make handmade pastas and pizza dough daily. It’s just those simple touches; we thought we could feature something cool and unique yet simple and approachable.” Think sweet-pea cavatelli — delicately textured shells coated in minty ricotta that play perfectly off the pop of peas — and pillowy pizzas with intriguing combos such as fennel, Fontina and hot honey. Cala serves breakfast and lunch, too. There are parfaits, pancakes, wraps, and burgers, as you'd expect from an all-day hotel restaurant. But the real Cala buzz comes at night.

Where Elements is sleek and sexy, all dark corners and mood lighting, Cala is beautiful and bohemian. Beams of sunshine dance through the vast windows, plants cascade from the ceiling, and the whole place pulses with music and a parade of people. This isn’t a spot for canoodling in the corner. Nearly every table has a view of the entire restaurant, a shared vantage point from which diners can watch graceful servers delivering showy charcuterie boards and head-turning drinks.
click to enlarge Sweet-pea cavatelli, with pasta made daily  from an extruder imported from Italy. - ALLISON YOUNG
Sweet-pea cavatelli, with pasta made daily from an extruder imported from Italy.
Allison Young
When it comes to drinks, there are wines to match the range of guests, from a $40 bottle of Prosecco all the way up to an $800 Cabernet Franc. And everyone can get into vacation mode with Cala's cocktails. The Surfrider, one of Spotleson’s “favorite drinks on the planet,” tastes like a gin martini that’s been dipped in the ocean, a slightly salty sip with a hint of orange that conjures the Amalfi Coast. Also on the list are Bells & Whistles, a vodka gimlet amped up with basil and fresh red bell pepper juice; the Vanity Fair, a sangria-meet-cosmo camera-ready creation that invites elderflower liqueur to the party for a floral finish; and an Old Fashioned that tastes new thanks to smooth notes of walnut.

Now ensconced in his next adventure, MacMillan appears to have found himself at Cala. “This is a fun, energy-driven restaurant that has this passion and vibrancy,” he says. “When I walk out into the dining room on a Friday and I can see all walks of life and people, it makes me happy.”

Cala Scottsdale
7501 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale
Daily, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

click to enlarge A new take on the Old Fashioned combines nutty, caramel and citrus notes. - ALLISON YOUNG
A new take on the Old Fashioned combines nutty, caramel and citrus notes.
Allison Young
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Allison Young has written about food, nutrition, and travel for Sunset, Women’s Health, Oxygen, Clean Eating, Mindbodygreen, and Prevention. Her local jam is food writing, where she happily eats her way across the Valley to discover the best hidden gems, hole-in-the-walls, pizza joints, and the latest Phoenix food trends. She also loves to pick Valley chef’s brains for their favorite food finds. On her website, TheGlitterList.com, she posts one thing she’s looking forward to each day, from food to books and podcasts.
Contact: Allison Young