Like millions of Coloradans — and Coloradans-at-heart — I'm anxiously awaiting the grand reopening of Casa Bonita.
Although it's been years since I last ventured into the 52,000-square-foot, Mexican-themed restaurant, frequent visits that began just weeks after it opened nearly 50 years ago imprinted imprinted the spectacular eatery on my childhood memories, leaving a mark as indelible as any setting aside from my childhood home or the schools I attended.
By the time you read this, the iconic restaurant on West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood could have flung wide its heavy brown doors, welcoming avid diners into its vast interior, which can accommodate more than 1,100 diners amid a — let's admit it — kitschy approximation of Mexican-themed tourist locations, complete with palm trees, star-lit verandas, strolling mariachis, subterranean caverns, a 30-foot waterfall and daring cliff divers who regularly take the plunge into a 14-foot-deep pool.
Its 85-foot pink and white stucco tower, topped with a gold leaf dome and a statue of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc, is one of the most prominent landmarks in the suburb west of Denver, Colorado's fifth-largest city. In 2015, the city's historical society designated the restaurant a historical landmark.
Purchased out of bankruptcy more than a year and a half ago by South Park creators and Colorado natives Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Casa Bonita has been undergoing a reported $12 million renovation under the new owners' maxim to "Improve everything but change nothing."
The pair unveiled their plans to revive the restaurant in an interview with Gov. Jared Polis celebrating the 24th anniversary of their popular Comedy Central animated series on Aug. 13, 2021, and after a rigamarole involving a local group of potential buyers, the bankruptcy judge sealed the deal three months later.
Last December, Parker and Stone announced that Casa Bonita would reopen in May of this year, though the precise date has been locked down tighter than Fort Knox. With less than a week remaining in the month, intrepid fans have pegged May 26 as the likely fateful day, since it's both Stone's 52nd birthday and the birthday of South Park character Kyle Broflovski, who celebrated with some of his pals at Casa Bonita in a memorable 2003 episode of the irreverent, long-running cartoon.
Casa Bonita was made for birthdays.
Decades before South Park made Casa Bonita cool for new generations of fans, it was the restaurant my friends and I would beg to go to again and again — not, as veteran patrons will hasten to add, for the food, but for the adventure.
Although my family wasn't among the throngs that lined the sidewalks of the Lakewood strip mall on March 27, 1974, the day Casa Bonita first opened, we made the first of what seems like hundreds — but probably numbers in the many dozens — of visits just two weeks later, to celebrate my 11th birthday.
That was before Casa Bonita — Spanish for "pretty house" — became a top tourist destination in Colorado, at one point reputedly rivaling the Denver Mint, the Air Force Academy Chapel and Rocky Mountain National Park as a the most popular destinations for visitors.
Even then, I remember my parents and their friends joking about how bad the food was, comparing it to TV dinners or worse.
That's supposed to change under the restaurant's new owners, who hired James Beard Award-nominated chef and Denver restauranteur Dana Rodriguez to oversee a revamped menu.
The week the Lakewood restaurant opened, John Denver's "Sunshine on My Shoulders" was the No. 1 song on Billboard's Hot 100, and the Aspen-based singer-songwriter's "John Denver's Greatest Hits" was about to dislodge Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were" as the top album in the country. "The Exorcist" was finishing a 12-week run as box office champ, with "The Sting" set to take over.
Although some of Casa Bonita's most popular features would be added later, including the multi-tiered fountain outside its entrance and Black Bart's Cave deep within, much of the experience was the same in 1974 as it has been over the decades.
Before entering the spectacular, multi-level dining hall — with some 30 themed rooms — customers had to order their meal after trudging through a seemingly endless, cafeteria-style line supposedly modeled on the lines for rides at Disneyland. But once inside, the clamor, calmed by the roar of the waterfall, was unmistakable.
Just four blocks from my grandparents' house, Casa Bonita quickly became a familiar neighborhood haunt, the restaurant around the corner.
And while the adults probably weren't quite as enthused about yet another trip to Casa Bonita, for years hardly a birthday or other celebration went by without at least considering a trip, and as often as not, that's where we'd end up. A good report card, school letting out for the summer, out-of-towners showing up for a visit, vacation nearing its end — there was always a reason to head to Casa Bonita.
The restaurant helped put Lakewood, which had only been incorporated as a city five years earlier, on the map.
The Jefferson County suburb didn't have many tall buildings nearly 50 years ago, so before long the towering pink facade was as recognizable a part of the landscape as the downtown skyscrapers and gold-domed state Capitol to the east and the foothills crowned by glimpses of the Rocky Mountains to the west.
The crown jewel in a chain of Casa Bonitas — the original was in Oklahoma City with subsequent editions in Tulsa, Okla.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Fort Worth — the restaurant occupied a remodeled Joslin's department store in the JCRS shopping center, which was also home to a Woolworth's and a JC Penney the restaurant opened. The center was named after the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society, which treated thousands of patients with tuberculosis who moved to Colorado during the early decades of the last century, seeking the fresh air and sunshine that were supposed to help treat the disease.
During its heyday, the original owners dubbed Casa Bonita "The World's Most Exciting Restaurant," but Parker and Stone appear to be upping the ante, calling it "The Greatest Restaurant in the World" in a billboard that went up in Denver in late May.
The hype in advance of its reopening has been constant, egged on by Polis, an avowed fan of the South Park show and the restaurant.
The governor name-checked the "beloved Colorado icon" in last year's State of the State Address, tipping his hat to Parker and Stone for shepherding Casa Bonita's "much-hoped-for comeback."
On April 1, 2022, a Polis spokesman announced in a tongue-in-cheek press release that the governor had been training with Olympic athletes for his upcoming gig as a cliff diver once the restaurant reopened.
Added Polis: “Many people think South Park is the capitol of Colorado, but they are wrong. Case Bonita is our real state capitol."
The state's Department of Revenue got in on it this month, auctioning off 17 Casa Bonita and South Park-themed vanity license plates, including CAVE, CSABNTA and CLFDIVR.
Some things, like endless sopapillas, transcend politics.
Across the past 50 years, there have been a few constants in Colorado.
Fans are quick to criticize the Broncos nearly as often as Coloradans complain about the traffic brought on by a steady stream of newcomers.
The phrase, "If you don't like the weather, just wait 15 minutes and it'll change," is as ubiquitous as boasts about the state's reputation for rarely going a day without sunshine.
Tension between the state's rural and urban residents persist amid near-constant appeals to Colorado's frontier spirit.
And few phrases generate as much excitement as, "Let's go to Casa Bonita!"
Ernest Luning has covered politics for Colorado Politics and its predecessor publication, The Colorado Statesman, since 2009. He's analyzed the exploits, foibles and history of state campaigns and politicians since 2018 in the weekly Trail Mix column. He'd like to sit by the waterfall and to have some more sopapillas, please.
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