A visit to Casa Bonita restaurant in Denver

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I remember watching the television commercials announcing the opening of Casa Bonita in 1973. The Mexican restaurant looked like a piece of Disneyland that had been scooped up and dropped onto the blighted Denver suburb of Lakewood, Colorado. The exterior featured pink fantasy Spanish mission architecture, and the interior contained a Mexican village, a mariachi band, a haunted cave, a waterfall and pond with cliff divers, fire jugglers, a Ske-Ball arcade, puppet and magic shows, costumed gorillas, and an all-you-can eat buffet. I begged my parents to take us there.

Even the rumors that Casa Bonita put dog food in its dishes -- rumors so virulent and pervasive that Casa Bonita had to buy airtime on local TV to assure people that it most assuredly did not use dog food -- did nothing to dissuade my desire to visit.

My parents eventually gave in. We drove to the restaurant, waited in a long, winding line (just like a line for a Disney attraction), took our food platters as they appeared from a slot, and were led by a waiter dressed in cartoonish Mexican garb to a table near the diving pool. It felt like we were sitting in a jungle, with twinkling stars overheard and a sleepy little Mexican town peeking through palm trees.

I don't remember many other details from that night. I do recall I thought it was wonderful, and I wanted to return as soon as possible.

And 35 short years later, I came back. My daughter was turning 11, and we wanted to celebrate. Since we were in Colorado on vacation, I suggested Casa Bonita. I described it to my daughter and she said it sounded like fun.

IMG_6152.JPG We went there in the middle of the week, driving from Boulder. The first thing I noticed as we got near the shopping mall where Casa Bonita was located was the large number of pawn shops, payday advance stores and check-cashing joints. Even the mall itself had a payday loan business. (Click images for full-size.)


IMG_6155.JPGThe magic store next door to Casa Bonita is like one of those businesses next to Disneyland that tries to drink from the theme park's milkshake. Kids who enjoyed the magic show at Casa Bonita no doubt dragged their parents into this place to get Chinese linking rings, balls-and-cups, and hollow thumbs.


IMG_6221.JPG This rainbow-haired, leprous clown in the window of the magic store caught my eye. How long has it been there? Years? Decades?


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This sign near the entrance to Casa Bonita promises a wonderful time for all. (Note the claim that there's no cover charge. However, the sign is really saying that all people over the age of two must purchase a meal.)

IMG_6159.JPG Once inside, I was surprised to discover that the place was nearly deserted. I saw about three other occupied tables in a restaurant that was built to hold hundreds of people. I was expecting lively music, but it was eerily silent, adding to the feeling of abandonment. The cashier was sitting on the floor, reading a book. She reluctantly got up, unhooked a chain blocking our entry, and took our order.


IMG_6165.JPGHere's a photo of my platter (Chicken Deluxe Dinner) emanating from the aforementioned slot in the wall. The people working here seemed to want to hide from the patrons.

IMG_6167.JPGHere's a close-up of my platter. Think it looks bad? You should try eating it. My wife could only eat one bite of her meal.


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The view from our table.

IMG_6200.JPG The gift store. We were the only ones there, besides the cashier.

IMG_6212.JPGThe Skee-Ball arcade. Again, we were the only ones there, besides the cashier, who accepted our 500 Skee-Ball tickets in exchange for a Spider Man eraser.

IMG_6215.JPG Apparently, you will die horribly if you insert your Skee-Ball tickets into the ticket-tabulator upside down. It must have been manufactured by Diebold.

IMG_6204.JPG The highlight of our visit was the Fanky Malloon machine. The promise of a "Flying Fun Balloon" for 75-cents was too good to pass up. We bought a Fanky Malloon for each of the three kids in our group. I took a video of the machine in action:


On the way out, I asked my 11-year-old if Casa Bonita was as wonderful as I'd promised it would be. She said it was even better. Maybe we'll come back in another 35 years.

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  1. There was a Casa Bonita, looks much the same, here in Tulsa. It closed briefly a couple of years ago, reopened as Casa Viva, closed, and I think is Bonita again. I haven’t been since the first time it was Bonita, but at least then the food was disgusting. I’ve heard it’s better.

  2. I love the overpowering reek of chlorine rising of the artifical lagoon that hits you when you enter the dark, humid interior of the building. It’s exactly the sort of smell that I want to accompany the truly horrible food. It really is worse, and more wonderful, than you can imagine without going there.

  3. Y’know… It’s exactly how the described it on South Park. I just assumed it was a made up place for the show like “Raisins” or “Ethiopia”

    Now I wanna go to see the cliff divers…

  4. Living on an hour or so from Denver, I took my kids there once. You need to go there on a weekend when the place is busy – it adds to the atmosphere.

    The food there is really mediocre at best. I would even suggest not getting the buffet, but go for something else. You don’t want more than one plate of anything, so the buffet is a waste.

    The desert there, sopapillas, really are good, and were the highlight of my meal.

    Overall, my kids loved the place too. The atmosphere is great (if people are around), and the food, while being overpriced, is at least edible.

  5. Blaine -the Southpark episode captures perfectly how Casa Bonita appears to a child. Only those of us who have aged to the point our souls are gone see the faerie gold for the pebbles and sticks that it is.

  6. Yeah, this is very depressing to me. I went there in 1986 and it rocked. The place was packed, there were divers and magicians and I left with a belly full of rice and beans and pockets full of useless toys and glow in the dark crap. It was excellent. Those pictures remind me of the half dozen or so abandoned amusement parks in Asia that have become ghost towns due to rumors of a curse or offenses against dead ancestors. The cashier sitting on the ground reading a book is a dire sign for that place. Eesh.

  7. I live about 15 minutes away from there, and absolutely love the place (not the food). Try going there with a bunch of friends and getting piss drunk on their margaritas. It makes the place so much more fun. So much fun, that we now do it regularly every 3-4 months. In fact it’s the only place and time that I drink anymore.

    Mark, you missed all the high points, No pictures of Black Bart’s Cave? For shame. And while the food is terrible, their Soapapillas are to die for though I guess it’s not hard to screw up fried bread and sugar. When ordering food it’s best to stick with very basic things. Cheese enchiladas or anything that doesn’t have meat in it are safe. I wouldn’t even dream of trying their buffet.

    And even if you aren’t seated in one of the weirder dining rooms away from the waterfall, they’re worth the trip. There’s a bunch of strange discoveries to be made, like a miner sleeping in a little cave in the mine dining room, or if you’re really observant you can find the hole in the wall that the cliff divers thread through to get back into the main restaurant. It’s in the “cave/stalagtite/stalagmite” dining room.

    Casa Bonita is pretty sad at 11am on a Tuesday, but I’ve been to wedding receptions there, and had a blast. It’s hard to keep up the ambiance of old Mexico when the resturant is butted up against a dollar store, a cash checking store and a pawn shop.

    And yeah, that clown in the Magic store has been there for 20+ years, as long as I can remember anyway.

  8. Enochrewt@13:

    You are right — the soapapillas are great, and we enjoyed the cave, going through it several times.

  9. I have the same magical memories of the Tulsa Casa Bonita.

    The way you describe the shoddy props reminds me of several of the rides at Silver Dollar City. (Well, it reminds me of the way I see those rides as an adult). I love SDC (including those crappy rides) anyway.

  10. A few years ago a group of us went skiing in Colorado. One of the guys who used to live in Denver INSISTED we go to Casa Bonita for dinner. Needless to say it was very entertaining. This entry made me laugh.

  11. Kitchy atmosphere — CHECK
    Long, LONG never-ending line — CHECK
    Some of the worst food on the planet — CHECK

    Yep, Casa Bonita has not changed since our one-and-only visit in 1999.

  12. After reading the story and all the comments, I’ll confess to being vaguely scared yet intrigued. I’ll have to gather my courage and seek it out should I ere find myself out that way.

  13. I remember the Dog Food story going around during my youth, too.

    The place was fantastic during my youth; but a weekday lunch probably doesn’t do much to hide the nakedness of it all.

    The Gorilla chasing the cliffdiver was always the high point of the entertainment, for me.

  14. Gawd that brought back memories!
    I remember eating their in HS during the early 80’s thinking it was the tackiest place I’d _EVER_ been too.

    The food was never great, but I thought the highlight of the meal was always the sopapillas for desert – they had big things of honey at every table =-)

  15. “I asked my 11-year-old if Casa Bonita was as wonderful as I’d promised it would be. She said it was even better.” – thank the Supreme Being for children!

  16. Can someone elaborate on the food coming through a slot in the wall? And how that works with a buffet?

  17. Sweet baby Jeebus! Casa Bonita is REAL?????

    I totally thought it was made up for South Park, and NOW? I MUST GO TO DENVER……

    Yes, seen through the eyes of a child, everything is brilliant, everyone can dance and sing, America has a million next top models, and anyone can be president.

    How I long for those days.

  18. When did you go? Noon on a Wednesday? Wrong time of day.

    We go once a year. Kids love it. You have to go weekend nights…it’s packed then. Food never been good…Fajitas are the most edible.

    You go for the all you can eat sopapillas though!

    They also do pinata breaks on the hour and have events during halloween and christmas.

    And yes there really are cliff divers, mariachi bands and and various guys selling trinkets. The arcades are so-so…but fun still :)

    And it’s on COLFAX…the pawn shops have always been there.

  19. Reminds me of a place that used to exist in my town, called Paramount Pizza Palace. A huge pipe organ with every kind of crazy sound making instrument on the wall above it that the organist could play with a giant control board. Outlandish stuff, and pretty cool kitchy music. Really neat.
    One problem though, the place was supposed to be a pizza parlor, but couldn’t make pizza up to freezer burned frozen pizza standards. TERRIBLE taste. How can you make pizza with a bad aftertaste? They did it. Closed several years ago.

  20. Any current or former employees have insights into the state of Casa Bonita? Did Mark just hit it on a quiet afternoon, or is the business struggling, and if so, what went wrong? Did they grow complacent or did the market’s tastes just evolve? Inspiration is so rare out there in suburbia; I hate to see homogeny overwhelm the makers and the dreamers.

    1. If the Mark your speaking of was the lead security, I can give you information if you want it. I was his second in command for a while. We were both let go about a month or so apart. Contact me at nekatsim@msn.com.

      Lisa

  21. There’s a place (perhaps “was a place”?) in Southern Salt Lake City that was the same kind of thing. It had a Mayan or Inca (perhaps Aztec?) theme with the cliff divers, mediocre Mexican food, gift shop, line to get in, etc.

    It was in a place that had a zillion screen theater, lots of other themed restaurants, “bars” (this was Utah after all) and the like.

    Same place, different place.

  22. wow … I thought that Casa Bonita had been made up for the episode. I mean, who could possibly create a place like that on purpose? Reminds me if the old “if you had wings” ride at Disney World that had a restaurant in the middle under a fake tropical starlit sky. (I might be mixing my rides up, it’s been a while)

  23. the dragon in black bart’s cave still gives me shivers. i went back again recently (now 25, as opposed to say, 7, the first time i went), and despite the sweeping nostalgia of certain sections i must admit it was a bit of a disappointment.

    then i had some drinks.

    the cave, the cliff divers, the puppet show, and the ominous well are the predominantly iridescent facets. the balloon machine was certainly fun, and i think that it may well have been the first place that i got a penny stamped into a slightly longer, more oblong penny for a fee fifty times its (afterwards negated) value~
    it has a warm place somewhere in my heart. you just can’t go back and expect too much of it.

  24. Once I was on tour with a band and we were going to be in Tulsa one day and Denver the next. I tried to eat at 2 casa bonitas in one 24 hour period. I ended up eating myself silly in Tulsa (much to the horror of my friends attending the spectacle), and getting sick, and skipping the second one.

    Also if you’re in Texas, check out Pancho’s Mexican Buffet. Similar concept, and slightly better food, except it’s like Casa Bonita in Denver is the mothership of the satellite Pancho’s locations.

  25. Caca Bonita?

    Actually, I think I might have eaten there when I was a kid back in the mid ’70s. I remember eating a sopapilla in Denver, so that must be the place, huh?

  26. Ah, yes. Casa Bonita. Our daughter just loved the one (and only) time we went there. We went on a Saturday evening, fairly early, so there were a few more people.

    We heeded the advice of some friends who had eaten there before, and ate first. The cliff divers and gorilla are way more fun if you’ve eaten real food first.

  27. #27 I have never been an employee there, but I seem to remember the that it was sold around 10 years ago. It was either that or close the place completely. The retail space that it’s in is so specialized both inside and out that I o couldn’t imagine what you’d do with it other than have it be Casa Bonita. The place seems to be just barely profitable to keep open. Or maybe it’s a tax shelter of some sort for the owner.

    I’d hate to see it close, because it it is a large resturant in a for what Denver standards is a fairly poor neighborhood. It does employ quite a few people I’d guess and while the jobs aren’t high end, it might have an adverse effect on the rest of the area to shut it down.

    I’ve also wondered about how they fit the Casa Bonita into a strip mall. I mean, the inside is probably around 10+ stories high/deep, and the tower outside isn’t really part of that. How deep into the bowels of the earth does Casa Bonita really go? Is it deep enough to qualify as hell? Is that why I have so much fun there?

  28. When I visited my brother in Denver last March I insisted we go to Casa Bonita (I’m 27, he’s 30). My introduction to it was through the South Park episode.

    It was actually pretty busy while we were there. Everything I was expecting to see was there: cliff divers, puppet shows, Black Bart’s cave.

    The food wasn’t inedible. Maybe a notch or two above Taco Bell, but the sopapillas were good. Definitely the kind of place that can be enjoyed on kitsch factor.

  29. @28 – That place would be the Mayan. It’s still here. I ate there for dinner once. Sort of like eating food while sitting in a Disney theme park. My uncle is one of the divers there too. It’s fun enough but really expensive for crappy Mexican food. It’s in the Jordan Landing or Jordan Commons. I can’t remember. Leave it to Utah to name two unrelated and different shopping complexes the with the same first word.

    I shrieked with glee to discover that Casa Bonita is, in fact, a real place. Now I can’t get Cartman singing Casa Bonita out of my head…

  30. I spent Christmas of 2007 there with a bunch of Brazilians; very surreal. Visit velveteenrobot at flickr for pictorial evidence. I was really, really shocked that my food was edible. I mean, not good. But edible.

  31. #26 reminds me of some sort of place with a crazy pipe organ I went to as a kid. Probably something like casa bonita, though I barely remember it. For some reason I think it was in Toronto, though I grew up in Detroit. Anyone help me out?

  32. #40: There was a pizza restaurant in Denver with a gigantic (read:3-4 stories tall) pipe organ in Denver as well. It was called “The Organ Grinder” if my memory serves. It was closed around 15 years ago. They had a guy dressed up in a bad imitation Liberace suit playing it. The place holds a special memory for me because I got my first gyroscope there. I think it was a chain, but I’m not sure. Does that sound like it?

  33. we must be close to the same age, mark — i have the exact same memories of casa bonita. in the mid- to late-70s, that place was, i’m sure, the coolest place on the entire planet. i went back to denver in 2001, and i insisted we go there. my nephew took his daughter, and while the food is exactly as you describe and show, the place still had its charms for me. the cliff divers and the gorilla took me back immediately, as did the mining caves. i missed the fanky maloon, though — guess i need to go back!

    i’m kinda pissed that south park made the place so famous. i liked it being the sort of secret offbeat thing that i could spring on friends who were going to denver: “you MUST go to casa bonita… trust me…”

  34. Answered my own question (#40), I owe google a nickel. It was called The Organ Grinder and was in Toronto. The best I can find is a youtube video of an old commercial, which sadly, doesn’t show off the organ all that much.

  35. That’s interesting you say it was deserted. I was there two summers ago and the place was packed. We had to wait in line for 15-20 mins before we reached the cashier.

  36. There was an Organ Grinder in Portland too, out on 82nd I believe. It’s long gone. The area is known for prostitution now, so I suppose there are a few organ grinders still open for business.

  37. I grew up in Denver and remember my first visit to Casa Bonita – must have been in the late 70’s cause I remember that and watching Blinky’s Fun Club every afternoon on Channel 2.

    The gunfights were always my favorite cause they used real guns! (with blanks of course). And who could resist the unlimited sopapillas.

    Like Mark, I took my son there a few years ago hoping to share the magic and wonder of the place.

    What a sureal experience! It was like entering a time-warp where everything is exactly the same as it was 30 years ago.

    Except….the food is absolutely inedible. I’m sure that the entrees are nothing more than frozen TV dinners warmed up in the microwave and slopped onto a plate. No wonder you don’t actually see anyone in the kitchen.

    In a way, it’s comforting to know there’s a place that is still untouched by progress even though it is so completely awful that I probably won’t go back there again in my lifetime.

  38. There was also a Casa Bonita in Oklahoma City during my youth (early 70’s). We used to go there either before or after our basketball tournament in OKC every year. No cliff divers but the same pedestrian food and the GREAT sopapillas. It closed awhile ago but now I have to take my grandchild to Denver.

  39. My collage friends and I made a horrible pact our freshman year. It was this…

    We must celebrate EVERY finals week of four years in collage with a night out to Casa Bonita. AND, The table must partake in all-you-can-eat sopapillas until the bottle of honey on the table was empty.

    Around the fifth time we went the novelty wore off. We began to dread our trips to Casa Bonita worse than the finals.

  40. I can’t believe no one has mentioned the talking face at the bottom of the wishing well, the smoking hobo in the jail cell, or the cherub above the fortune room whose eyes blinked mechanically. I got a few good laughs out of this one. The heavy, humid, chlorine soaked air; Bart’s cave (which inevitably smelled of fart), Even though all the adult perspective is accurate that place is still magic!

  41. I lived across the street from Casa Bonita from 2002-2004, and went there every year as a child. I also had a lot of friends who worked there when we were in high school. the food there has never been good. And if it ever did have dog food in it, then it wasn’t very good dog food, because I distinctly remember taking some of that food home as a kid and trying to feed to to my dog, who wouldn’t touch it.

    My friends in high school said that there is a large freezer in the back where they keep the food, which often has mold on it, but that doesn’t always stop them from serving it.

    Also, there are all sorts of wonderful rumors about the place. Apparently the waterfall was some kind of mistake during construction. There was a collapse of some of the stone and when they looked at all the rubble, somebody said “Hey that kind of looks like a waterfall, let’s go with that instead.” Probably not true, but I’ve heard that story from several different people. Also, apparently the owner of Casa Bonita worked his way up from being a dishwasher to owning the entire restaurant.

    To my knowledge, it’s in no danger of closing down. It may have been empty when you visited it Mark, but it can be completely packed on a weekend or an evening.

    I really hate South Park, so I didn’t know they did an episode on Casa Bonita. But it sounds like more people know about it now than ever.

    The neighborhood on Colfax there is known to the locals as “The Casa Bonita Barrio”, and that same clown has been in the window of the magic shop for over twenty years. We call it “The Zombie Clown”. But now that I think about it, I’m really not sure it’s any more creepy than any other clown.

    Thanks for the post, Mark, it’s good to remember Casa Bonita. A place that you only take your friends from out of town if you want to torture them with amazing decor and horrible food. Just make sure you eat something before you get there.

  42. Reminds me of South of the Border, which I call the Tackiest Place on I-95.

    They used to have billboards up and down I-95 saying how many miles to SOTB (there was even one up here in Delaware saying about 500 miles). Each billboard featured a stereotypical Mexican, Pedro, saying some punny Mexican-English quip. I think they started taking them down finally about 10 years ago due to PC pressure. Or lack of money.

    If you want horrible food, a ghost-town feel, and millions of cheap tchotchkas made in China, SOTB is for you.

    About the only fun part of SOTB for normal people is driving through Pedro’s Legs.

  43. There was nothing remotely like Casa Bonita on the East Coast, or at least the NYC area.

    I am familiar with the creepy-sad feeling of going back to a “magic” childhood place when you’re older, and seeing the seams and splinters and shabbiness.

    I saw, via Google maps, that a teeny-tiny amusement part / arcade / miniature golf course in Bayville, NY was still open, at least forty two years after I’d first gone there. A return visit would probably induce gut-shredding nostalgia.

  44. I JUST watched this South Park episode the other day. I, too, had no clue it was actually a real place.

    That is just awesome.

  45. There’s a restaurant here in Flagstaff named Casa Bonita that actually serves good Mexican food. There’s a very cool statue of Michael the Archangel in the foyer–but that’s pretty much where the coolness ends.

    Every time my wife suggests we go to “Casa Bonita” my heart jumps with excitement before my brain catches up and I remember that I’m not a nine-year-old food philistine, and I’m not in Denver anymore.

  46. #53 “Chili today, Hot Tamale”?

    “You never Sausage a place”?

    How about “Keep Yelling Kid (they’ll stop)!

    I hate that place so much. I was happy when hurricane Hugo wiped out most of those signs, but then new ones went right up.

  47. Casa Bonita was the coolest place in town if you were a kid in the 1970s or 1980s. I lived in Casper, Wyoming, and one of the high points of the several hour drive to Denver with the church youth group every year was visiting Casa Bonita. They had the biggest video game arcade I’d ever seen. In fact, they had so many games they overflowed into an arcade next door.

    And who could forget magic in one room, cliff divers in another, the caves, the fake jail, the mariachis, and the all-you-can-eat sopapillas!

  48. Thanks so much for posting this. I have only recently become aware that Casa Bonita is a real place. I, too, learned about if from South Park!
    From what I can see it’s kind of like the “Chuck E. Cheese’s” of Mexican restaurants, right?
    Probably fun if you can belt down a few drinks before you can get there. Glad to hear your kid had a good time, in any case!

  49. @46,48,49

    That Blinky movie was awesome. Seeing those old clips lit up a corner of my mental attic that hadn’t seen light in decades.

    In another corner of the attic are memories of The Wallace and Ladmo Show, from Phoenix, AZ.

    Two of the blessings of my youth.

  50. Heh! Yes, it’s all true! Ever since the Rainforest Cafe in Cherry Creek closed down a few years back, Casa Bonita is pretty much the only place left in the Denver area for a truly kitschy dining experience. It’s good fun, but we can only stand to eat there every few years.

    Mark, did you go there at lunch? It is usually pretty crowded most evenings.

    The atmosphere is a lot of fun, but the food, well, it is edible, though it makes Taco Bell seem good by comparison. Seriously, the cheese enchiladas taste of “processed cheese food”! As for the chicken enchiladas; I guess I can understand saving some money by using canned chicken, but, jeez, at least drain the liquid from the can first. Shudder. I agree with the poster who advised not to go there hungry.

    The Sopapillas are great, however. The dessert pretty-much makes up for the rest of the meal. Stay for the show: cliff-divers, a mariachi band, and staged fights. And explore the various dining areas: I particularly like the cavern and the gold mine, but the cantina, the hacienda, and the plaza are fun as well. The arcades are good for the kids, but tend to be overcrowded and noisy.

    I have not seen the South Park episode which features the restaurant, but I will have to check it out some time.

  51. When I was a kid in the ’80’s, they had the BEST arcade of ALL TIME right next door to the Casa Bonita front fountain entrance. The biggest decision for a 12-year-old kid in Denver in 1984 was, “do I have my birthday at Showbiz Pizza or Casa Bonita?”

    The sopapillas at Casa Bonita always won out. Those, and the guy in the gorilla suit. And Black Bart’s Cave.

    Seriously, it WAS like a low-rent out-of-date Disneyland, and right here in our own Mile High cowtown!!!

    I’d like to make it a historical landmark, me.

  52. i grew up in the denver area and i remember one summer day when 5-year-old me spent hours waiting for my daddy to come home from in the driveway so he could take me to la casa bonita for my birthday.

    it doesn’t help that i am going to a medieval times theme restaurant to celebrate my birthday (many years later) in a week.

  53. Good Lord, Mark!

    Casa Bonita is not meant to be viewed by adult eyes who can discern shit from shinola. The continued existence of the place is owed to word of mouth falsehoods from one child to the next. When I was a kid, my friends all screamed about how awesome CB was. They described waterfalls and caves, and torches, and weird balloon machines. By the times my parents finally took me there, I was unable to accept the suckage. My parents however, knew better and never took me back.

    I did however return when I could drink heavily and watch the shows with a more discerning eye. (2 years ago)
    No amount of coronas can mask the epic fail.

  54. @ #49

    wow, what a great video. thank you for linking to it. it actually brought tears to my eyes — i learned more about blinky in that video than i EVER knew about him before. i hope he’s still alive, since that was made a few years back. i’d love to go visit his store and talk to him. i wanted so badly to be a birthday guest of his, but it never happened. it’s good to know he carried on for so long, becoming the last remaining clown-based kid’s show in the country. krusty owes him one!

  55. Casa Bonita, of course, is the place in Denver that every one knows about, but no one ever, ever goes to unless it’s demanded by a child, or you have people visiting from out of town.

    I’ve been twice, and pretty much all the things said above are quite accurate. Black Bart’s cave rocked, and the really sprawling, tunneled, cave-like dining rooms rock.

    The food, however….. It’s indeed good that fried bread and sugar are nearly impossible to screw up.

  56. Casa Bonita isn’t actually that bad. I have to agree that the food sucks though. It’s funny, because a friend of mine was actually just telling me that he used to work there and that their beans come in huge bags and are mixed in a sort of cement mixer type machine in the kitchen.

    I’ve grown a fondness for the place though, as my entire family comes out once a year to get together and go there, which we’ve been doing for probably more than 20 years, and it’s usually pretty fun. It’s a great family atmosphere, but it’s fairly cheesy to the adults. It’s fun to see the kids having fun though.

    I’ve actually never seen the place less than packed, but we’ve always gone on the weekend in the evening.

  57. #53: The South of the Border billboards are still all over the place on I-95, and the place is still there. The travel channel even did a show about truck stops and it appeared as one of the top five truck stops in the country.

    I was there for a pit stop after the school year started and noticed all of their bins of crap (snow globes, back scratchers, sombreros, little boy pee-pee statues, etc.) were rather sparse. You could actually see the bottom of the bins. Compared to years past I’d say this was a dire sign for the American economy.

    Love reading everyone’s remembrances of kitschy childhood haunts. In Dallas they had a Pipe Organ Pizza place, several actually. Big wall mounted pipe organ that had percussion instruments and all. The place even had good pizza. My parents would even drag us kids there when we’d gotten tired of it so that they could get their pizza. Canadian Bacon and Pineapple pizza, [Homer Simpson gurgling noise inserted here].

  58. So this place is almost universally despised and yet adored? It’s like something out of a Don Delillo novel.

  59. Call me a killjoy if you will, but I almost always go out to eat for the food. If there is nice/interesting ambiance or any of that happy crap, its a bonus. Seems like every comment about this Casa Bonita joint mentions that the food sucks. I find it interesting that the place is so long-lived and popular even though the food is universally panned.

    Give me a hole-in-the-wall with awesome chow any day.

  60. I must have been the luckiest kid in Denver as I got to go to Casa Bonita for my 5th birthday AND be a guest on Blinky’s Fun Club. Actually, nothing much has measured up since. The food does suck, but to be fair the kitchen is really really clean, I worked there for a bit in high school. The health dept. keeps an extra sharp eye on them since the rumors about the food have been going around for two decades. My favorite part of the place was the treasure room, as a kid you’d get fake money and have to exchange it with a gypsy type person and could choose a DUM DUM, tootsie roll or fake ring. The rings were the best ever, better than the ones at the dentists office. The magic store next door is definitely worth a trip. I was in there this summer and the place was a mess, boxes everywhere, nothing put away, but it’s charming, like if you look in a neglected corner you might find something which was actual magic or a scary mugwhump. I’ve stopped into Blinky’s collectible shop a couple times, I think he calls it something else. He is a super sweet guy still and will act like he remembers you from when you were five and on his show.

  61. Casa Bonita: The Happiest Place on Earth!

    I’ve been going to Casa Bonita since I was 4 yrs old. Now I’m 35 and I still have just as much fun, if not more, as when I was a kid.

    Casa Bonita rulz, even if the food sucks.

  62. >> the blighted Denver suburb of Lakewood, Colorado.

    C’mon now, Mark.

    Only parts of Lakewood are blighted, especially along Colfax, but many/most parts are homogeneous suburban goodness.

  63. Sometimes I wonder how you can really enjoy South Park without living in Colorado. Come on — Casa Bonita, Cave of the Winds? Really!

  64. There used to be a Casa Bonita in Fort Worth. It was truly magical and mystical to a 6 year old in 1983. I am not sure when it closed, but I still have memories of the wishing well, caves, jail bars that you could bend with your hands–-if you were a little hercules :)

    I had to phone a friend and tell him about this article. we have been wanting to take a trip to the Colorado one to relive our childhood memories.

    Now I know to go on a weekend night if we ever make it there.

  65. This reminds me, on some very weird levels, of the “ORIGINAL!” Taco House on Powell Blvd. in Portland, OR. It was the closest bar to our house that DIDN’T feature strippers. Much smaller than this, it seems almost like it was probably a Mexican tiki-restaurant in it’s day. Mediocre steamtable food, too!

  66. #62-

    What about Celebrity? Between the ages of 7 and 13, it was always Showbiz, Casa Bonita or Celebrity for birthdays (friends and my own)

  67. I used to work at a Mexican restaurant in Muncie, IN that was modeled after Casa Bonita. It didn’t have all of the cool stuff, but it had the same general decor and the awful food. (Or at least I assume — I served the food but never ate it.)

    On the up side it did have the sopapillas and the little flags to raise if you wanted to get the attention of the waitstaff. (I’ve always liked that particular idea.)

  68. One of my fondest childhood memories was seeing snow for the first time on the same night I first went to Casa Bonita. I’d been in the country mere weeks at that point.

  69. Casa Bonita? Celebrity Fun Center? Blinky the Clown? I didn’t know I *had* successfully repressed so many childhood memories…

  70. previously on BoingBoing: Holy crap: South Park’s “Casa Bonita” is for reals – Boing Boing.

    I stand by my comment on that post: The food is horrible, the air smells of chlorine, but the chance to go through their haunted cave and get lost on the way to the bathroom is priceless.

    Still, my dad always found it especially insulting that you had to wait in line to leave. And I think everyone finds the drugstore in the corner of the strip mall there [if it’s still there] hilarious — unless they’re buying emergency medicine there after eating Casa Bonita’s food.

  71. The Casa Bonita in Oklahoma City was my FAVORITE restaurant when I was a small child in the early ’80s. My family dreaded going there, but they put up with it to make me happy.

    The OKC location didn’t even have cliff divers or gorilla suits or anything. Just a small arcade (they did have a balloon machine!) and the gypsy who’d give you a trinket or candy for your Casa Bonita dollar.

    As a child, I’d always order the fried chicken meal off the kids’ menu– Fried chicken leg, canned peas, and a cooked, cored apple that had been dyed red and tasted vaguely of cinnammon. My family suffered greatly by eating the “Mexican” food, but we all enjoyed the sopapillas.

    Many years later, I went back again with my mom and my older brother, just to see what it was like then. I was brave enough to actually try the Mexican food that time, and I was suddenly much more appreciative for the sacrifices my family had made for me by going there repeatedly.

    The “cheese enchilada” looked just like someone had inserted a rolled-up tortilla into a plate of yellowish dog diarrhea.

    The place closed down in the mid ’90s, I think. Too bad.

  72. I am HEARTBROKEN.

    I went there many, many times growing up in Colorado, and it was always saved as a really special treat.

    There were divers who would climb up the artificial waterfall and then pirouette into the pool and disappear behind the waterfall.

    There was a gorilla costume guy who would come out and terrorize the restaurant until an explorer with a cap pistol would drive him away.

    Sometimes the gorilla would chase a woman to the top of the waterfall, and then push her off and then the explorer would dive in to save her.

    There was at least one mariachi band, and always a puppet show.

    And glow necklaces!!! You had to get one!

    And you could go through the haunted cave and if you looked in some of the holes, there were creepy faces that would peer back at you.

    And one of those fortune-telling gypsy machines, that I was terrified of.

    And a wishing well with a watery face at the bottom that talked to you.

    And a mine! You could eat in the mine!!!

    The food, however, was always horrible. Even as a child with low standards.

    I just thought of Casa Bonita this morning, before seeing this, and when I saw it come up, I thought, “Yes! Someone is going to help me re-live my childhood!” But instead I found that it really is over.

    =(

  73. I went there in 1985 and it kicked my *ass*. Amazing activity, place full of people, the cliffdivers, the sights, the sounds.

    Just a reminder that all things change. Leave something stagnant and it will start to break down. You need to keep things moving, evolving, changing. Imagine a high-tech Casa Bonita.

    Disney it ain’t.

  74. Mark, this was really, really funny. Well written. I LOLed-out-loud a couple of times.

    Also, that plate… doesn’t look… clean.

  75. Casa Bonita! Tourist trap and mandatory destination for Denver metro summer grade school base programs! You missed the best part – the “cliff” divers. My nieces were captivated on a school trip recently.

    My only dining experience at Casa B was back in 1980 on my first trip to Denver. The food was terrible. It was the first time I had ever seen a velveeta cheese enchilada.

    My favorite Casa Bonita story was published in the Denver Post years and years ago. A Soviet(mostly Russian) trade delegation was visiting Denver. The Denver hosts took them all the usual places – Supermarkets, shopping malls, etc. to show them everything Americans had to choose from. They then took them to Casa Bonita. The Soviets were very impressed with how good the food was. The reporter stated that in all the time he had been to Casa B he had rarely seen anyone order seconds and it was the only time he had seen people have thirds on the food. He felt it was a pretty severe indictment of Soviet cooking. I had to agree:-)

    I always tell visiting friends and family it’s a one time must go experience, along with the Spaghetti Factory if they have kids. But only one time!

  76. Pancho’s!!! I didn’t realize they still existed much less outside El Paso. Now there’s mediocre Mexican we ate at semi-regularly when I was growing up. It was the all you can eat, more than the quality of the food. The sour cream enchilada were good and the sopapilla’s were excellent. LOL.

    Now I eat at Ajuua’s (the owners are from Juarez). One of the few places in Boulder/North Denver metro I can get El Paso border style Mexican and what I think of as properly made rellenos.

  77. I was just there this past Friday. It gets much busier at night, but the food doesn’t get any better. At least they have margaritas by the liter.

  78. “The way you describe the shoddy props reminds me of several of the rides at Silver Dollar City. (Well, it reminds me of the way I see those rides as an adult). I love SDC (including those crappy rides) anyway.”

    Wow, I’m getting lots of childhood memories from the comments. I’ve been to Silver Dollar City many times on family visits. I always had fun. Of course I never went thinking it was going to be like the big parks. Haven’t been in over 10 years though.

    My sister was just at SDC this summer and said it’s pretty much being rebuilt. Fire in the Hole is still there, but the crazy house (Tom Sawyer?) with all the optical illusions is closed and is going to be torn down. There are a number of new rides as well. They still have the glass blower and the blacksmith, though there is less emphasis on the late 1800’s craft aspect that used to be a big focus of SDC.

    What a blast from the past…

  79. I have a good friend who still lives in Denver, and her husband Mark used to play trumpet in the house mariachi band at Casa Bonita. Now he plays in “Denver’s best bar band,” the Informants. Her sister’s husband used to be the diver that did fancy dives off the cliff into the pool. Later, he was a ballet dancer.

  80. #73 – The word for you is less “killjoy” and more “grown-up”, alas.

    This entire post is one of the most charming things I’ve ever encountered on this website. My take of Mark’s photos were “my, how depressing” until his winking final comment about his daughter’s reaction, and all the comments here intensify both sides of this. I never did anything remotely like this as a kid – New England doesn’t really have a lot of joints like this – and it’s fun and enlightening to read about everyone’s nostalgic adventures elsewhere in America.

  81. 12 Years ago my wife (to-be then) and I visited Denver and we went there.

    It is, quite literally, one of the worst (if not the worst) meals I have ever eaten, and that includes Taco Bell and my own attempts at cooking. We each had maybe one bite of our meal, then gave up. I can see why the dog food rumors would stick.

    We even tried the sopapillas. I mean, fried tortillas with honey. How could you screw that up? But they did, they did. It was just awful. You’d be better off gnoshing on a Fanky Malloon.

    We actually stood in line, waiting to get in, as it was very busy. “How’s the food?” we asked the lady in front of us. “Well, we bring the kids for the atmosphere.” Of course you do.

    It’s like Chuck E. Cheese raped the dead, frozen corpse of Walt Disney at a mini-golf course and somehow begot this hideous offspring.

    My recommendation: Feel free to bring the kids and wander around. But don’t eat anything. At all.

  82. I was less than ten when we visited Casa in Denver a few times. I remember the cave, arcade, puppet shows with the animatronic rocks in the walls of the theatre, the cliff divers, and the gorilla.

    I also remember the wishing well and the gypsy lady who would tell your fortune and give you a plastic ring on the way out the door. And the glow in the dark stuff was so cool back then!

    Now I’m 31 and live about 15 minutes from Casa. For the last two birthdays we’ve gone there for my parties. On weekends in late October they retrofit the cave for a halloween theme and haunted house.

    It’s fun for the atmosphere, drinks, sopapillas, and it gets me a bit nostalgic. Even the chlorinated smell of the waterfall brings back memories. My wife thought it was a crazy hoot when I first convinced her to go with me.

  83. The sopapillas are really where its at! All the rest of the food is junk but the sopapillas…mmm…tasty

    Also, I think they filled in under the bridge in black Bart’s cave which is a bummer because it was fun when I was 12 to hide under their and grab peoples feet as they walked by!

    Hilarious!

  84. Sounds like Chuck E. Cheese, jacked up by an order of magnitude or so. I went to one of those back in college, and me and my friends snarked the whole time, but you know, we really weren’t their target demographic.

  85. I love Casa Bonita!!! It is one of my favorite places to eat. I love sitting by the waterfall watching the hot guys dive off the cliff! The cave is cool too. :)

  86. We never went there as kids, despite much pleading with my parents (my mother still holds out on the attempts to make her go). I went for the first time in my early 20s and was amazed- and not in a good way. I had no plans to go back, but last month (and about six years later), my boyfriend’s parents were in town and he insisted (and they insisted) that we MUST go. The food’s still horrible, except for the sopipillas, the cliff divers are still eye candy, and I hope to put off going again for another six years. Sadly, the boyfriend loves the place, so I think I’m screwed.

    And yes, South Park got it right.

  87. Somebody mentioned the Celebrity Sports Center. I used to race slot cars there. Gee, maybe I should start an open thread on Boing Boing for all of us Denverites and ex-Denverites to reminisce.

  88. We went on an elementary school trip there! Third Grade I believe, and I decided that it was the place to hold hands with my third grade girlfriend.. or at least that is what I wanted her to be.. but alas the Casa Bonita vibe did not move her… I left Denver in 1990 and rarely go back.. and every time I do I am amazed with all the new building that some of these insane places are still standing! Thank god Celebrity Sports center is gone.. I got punched by a skee ball dude when I was in middle school for wearing a Ramones T shirt.

  89. @#96 by JAFI: They’re shutting down Grampa’s Mansion!?! WTF are they thinking?

    Or maybe it’s Tom’s Tree that they’re shutting down, in which case, eh. It’s mostly just the kind of kid’s playground you might see in a public park, anyway.

    I took my and my sister’s kids to SDC around last Christmas. It was awe inspiring, or at least nostalgia inspiring – the great light display, actual cold weather (I live in Dallas now), all the crappy dusty plastic faux animatronic jailbirds & miners dressed in shoddy thin parodies of clothing, eating crappy food in the Mine restaurant…

    Good times!

  90. Do it, Mark!!! There’s sooooooo very few people who remember Celebrity! Granted, I still live in Denver and know sooooo very few people who are from here ;) I loved Showbiz, and of course Casa Bonita will always have a place in my heart (and tapeworm in my intestines), but Celebrity is somewhere I went so often I feel like my heart is broken without it. I still have bowling pin from the last night it was open.

  91. Anyone remember the mascots? Kind of “Banana Splitz” type animals? I remember the Monkey. One time my Mom was asked to participate in the Gorilla/Safari guy/Lady skit at the waterfall. And the wishing well was the closest thing to Disneyland I’d see until I was a lot older. And the rubber-bar jail? Casa Bonita is pure heaven. Until you’re about 25.

  92. We lived in Denver in the mid-1970’s and ate at Casa Bonita many times. I was around 10-14 years old and it was the only restaurant I actually looked forward to going to at that age. I can clearly remember all the details and from the looks of the photos I am seeing it hasn’t changed a bit in 30 years! Very eerie – looks like the same signage and all, even down to the slot the food comes out. I remember when we used to go it was a huge deal. The line was always wrapped outside the building but it always moved VERY fast. It was like a feeding machine. Seems like I remember no one at the time ever ordered anything but the all you can eat. It was basically like $3-5 for as much as you could possibly eat. I remember they used to have little plastic flags on the tables and when you had cleared your platter and you were ready for another heaping, helping – you would raise your flag and like magic someone would appear to take your platter and promptly bring it back fully stocked. I remember being intrigued at how no matter how far back in a nook and cranny (and there were plenty) your table was – they always attended to you quite well. But by far the best part of the evening was after dinner. That was when the children (myself and my best friend) were released into the wild. During that time you didn’t really worry about child predators much and children were allowed to roam within Casa Bonita for what seemed like hours. My friend and I personally preferred the magic show stage, but evreything was of course fun and the fact you could stop at any (of many) sopapilla stands and ask for your fill of dough and honey (without your parents around) was just the icing on the cake.

    I had no idea Casa Bonita was still around, it’s very sad to hear the current state of the establishment, then again maybe it was always that way and in my young eyes it was a magical world only to use kids.

  93. I worked there through high school. It was a blast. During winter there’s 500 or so employees. In the summer it jumped to 3,000, with females about 70% of the crew. Most of us were HS/college age and it drew workers from all over the metro area. So for a guy of 17 or so, it was a great way to meet a lot of gals. I must have gone to 8 different homecoming dances, dated a few “college girls” (if only for a night) and there was always some older dude (probably 25) who’d throw a house party 3 times a week. Most of the food did suck, but it was targetted at families and tour buses full of seniors who’d found ketchup to be spicey. Operationally, it was pretty amazing. It sat 1,200 at once and I believe the most customers in one day was 50,000. Everyone had to buy a meal but many simply scarfed down their plate as fast as possible and then went walking about, hence the fast turnover. So many stories come to mind I could probably write a book on the place, like the time the gorilla fell in the “lake” and everyone thought it was part of the act… except for the person in the gorilla suit, which filled with water and was impossible to swim in. Or all the people trying to boink in the back caverns, which happened to be on CCTV.

  94. I went to Casa Bonita about three weeks ago with a friend who’d never been before but is a big South Park fan.

    I told him not to eat the “cheese” substance they put on the food. He didn’t listen, and puked on the way out the door. Then he puked four more times in the parking lot.

    There should be a Denver Boing Boing meetup at Casa Bonita.

  95. Oh I want to get in on the reminiscing too!

    When I was growing up, I went to Casa Bonita for EVERY birthday. It was just a set thing – my birthday = we get to go to Casa Bonita. To a pack of 7 year olds, it’s about the greatest thing on earth. My parents absolutely hated it and I don’t recall my dad ever going more than once, but my mom would be a good sport and take us. I think I even continued to go a few times in High School for my birthday.

    We even had a school field trip there once, we got a tour and the whole nine yards and learned some interesting things about the rooms. Each one has a name and a story and a specific theme behind its design. One of the rooms, for example, was created with the sole purpose of having great acoustics.

    The food is pretty much the most expensive microwaved mexican TV dinner you will ever buy. It tastes almost identical to those “El Rancharito” TV dinners, but since I grew up on those and Casa Bonita, I don’t even mind that the food sucks, I usually go for the all you can eat and have a few plates anyway. And, like others have said, the Sopapillas are the best part – just as tasty every time I return.

    The entire restaurant is a maze of rooms hidden in every nook and cranny. Every time I go there I try to find something new and I’m still convinced there are entire areas of the restaurant I have somehow missed.

    I’m 27 now and to this day whenever I visit Denver again with friends, I always take them to Casa Bonita. Despite the quality of the food, we always have a great time. The last time I was there was probably less than a year ago and although the lines weren’t long like when I was a kid, there were a healthy number of people in the restaurant and they still did the same live show they’ve been doing for the past 25 years (“the monkey ripped the girls’ dress off!! oo!! ahh!!”)

    My favorite part of course is black bart’s cave. When we were kids you could still get under the bridge and grab people’s ankles as they walked by, but they filled it in probably about the same time I was getting too old to do such a thing. As a kid, I also loved the piñiata party they did every hour and can remember droves of kids taking part.

    I’ve talked to a few friends this past week who want to go to Colorado and the first thing I said to them was “I’ll have to take you to Casa Bonita.”

  96. I often went there in the late 70s and early 80s with my family and also the occasional school trip. I remember the little flags on the tables and the sopapillas.

  97. Wow, Casa Bonita, Celebrity, the Scotchman, and Roller City! My band played Roller City! I got busted by the rent-a-cop at Roller City! This thread is weaving around large parts of my misspent youth. Cool!

  98. The “grown-ups” will only enjoy Casa Bonita if (1) they fell in love with the place as a child, or (2) they’re still a kid at heart. I meet both criteria, so I absolutely love this place.

    The food is bad. How bad? Go to the menu page of the casa bonita website and right-click to save the one picture of the food – “slop.jpg” – I’m not kidding!

    So what? I still order the #1, and I still raise the flag for seconds. Filling your belly with horrible mexican food is part of the experience. And, the sopapillas are excellent.

    Never fear for the fate of Casa Bonita. The place is still packed on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s good to experience Casa when it’s at full swing, but I actually prefer the more deserted weekday afternoons. It’s cool to have this huge funhouse almost all to yourself.

    Even as adult, you can’t help but be impressed by the incredible illusion of it all. The building used to be a 3-story department store. It seems so much bigger. As a kid, it seemed positively labyrinthine. Don’t insult the Casa by comparing it to Chuck E. Cheese. Chuck is nothin’ compared to Casa Bonita.

    I notice something new every time I visit, and there is plenty to experience as evidenced by the hundreds of preceding posts. Anybody ever notice the jungle room on the bottom floor? The entrance is right by the fortune telling machine. This room has been closed for what’s got to be at least 10 years. They just use it for storage now. Why is that?

    On my last visit, I noticed Black Bart’s Cave had been spruced up – a lot of the animatronics have finally been repaired.

    Tomorrow, I’m taking my annual trip to the mountains, and my 8-month-old son goes to Casa Bonita for the very first time. The tradition continues…

  99. Lord help me, Mark, you actually made me want to visit Casa Bonita again! Damn you!

    I almost wound up going recently when Charles Phoenix was in town, but I couldn’t stand the thought of stomaching the food. (Charles loved it, btw, of course!) My only memory of eating it is that the cheese enchiladas taste like pre-digested velveeta…kind of barfy. I always avoided the meat thanks to the aforementioned dog food stories, which were repeated ad infinitum in high school once my pimply friends scored jobs there.

    I’ve had several friends work there, actually — one as a cliff diver, and two as Mariachi band players. Each of those mariachi band guys spends about $700 on his suit / uniform, and is required to have two! (Of course, who wouldn’t want a mariachi suit? I know I want one!)

    And I can’t believe so few people mentioned raising the flag for the sopapillas — when I was a kid, that was the most anticipated part of the meal, and considered an honor amongst the family members to be chosen for the task. (As the youngest, it was usually me anyway!) The treasure cave was the best part (Free candy and plastic crap? Sign me up!), and the best view was looking through the waterfall from behind. If you were lucky enough to stand there when a diver went down you always got splashed a little. Thrilling!

    My Mom lived a couple of blocks away for years, so I drove by it weekly for a long time. Now there’s an art school directly behind it, so it can inspire a new generation of young artists…be looking for a plethora of Casa Bonita paintings in the coming years! Kitsch + snarky art students = good times!

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane…I may just have to go inside now!

  100. Back in the early seventies my brother from Minnesota, who is a seasoned traveler, came to visit. He said that Casa Bonita was the highlight of his trip! Of course he was and still is a kid at heart.

    My granddaughters, ages 5, 7 and 9 love it too and I still enjoy going there.

    Food has never been great, weekends are more lively of course.

    Ruth
    Colorado Springs

  101. I grew up in Denver and remember Casa Bonita fondly. I moved away when I was 15, so I’ve never experienced it as an adult. It’s probably better that way. Things always seem more exciting to kids, don’t they? But if ever I get back to Denver, I’ll probably have to go just for the heck of it.

  102. I ran across this earlier tonight and I felt I needed to add my input.

    I went tonight with my husband, two kids, and one of the neighbors kids. It cost us 70 bucks in just food but you kinda expect that. I have to say there was something different about the food. It was actually edible. Although it was on par with Taco Bell tonight it was weird, you could almost say good by Casa Bonita standards.

    We totally spoiled the kids tonight, the two boys got light sabers as did the husband, my daughter got a light up septer and I got the flashing bunny ears. It’s October so they had the pinata room all decked out for Halloween. The main entrance to the gift shop was blocked off by a casket, the puppet show area was made into a cemetery. It was pretty cool, looked like they actually made an effort this year. I was dissapointed that all of the lights in Bart’s cave were on so it wasn’t as dark and you could see how filthy it was. You could also see that they didn’t fill in the area under the bridge in the cave they just bolted some boards to the sides so no one can get down there to grab your feet.

    We got to sit behind the waterfall. It’s not a good place if you want to see the shows but it’s great if you want to makeout or slip the gorilla guy 20 bucks to come torment your kids because they’re still afraid of him at 11.

    It wasn’t as crowded as it usually is on Saturday night and they definately put more booze in the drinks tonight. The standard bums were out asking for smokes and cash. The best one had to be the chick who asked after walking out of Casa Bonita and then got into her SUV after we told her no. Ah the charm of Colfax.

    I grew up in North Denver and Edgewater so I’ve been around Casa Bonita all my life. My father actually ran in there once when him and my uncle were running from the cops, they managed to lose them. I went to high school at Jefferson so during the summer you either worked at Lakeside or Casa Bonita. I never worked at Casa Bonita but many of my friends did. The worst job I heard about was being a diver. It looks like it would be the most fun but imagine climbing those rocks coved in bruises with sprains and all of that. Back then the management didn’t care, you had a job and you were to do it no matter what.

    The lady who usually slides you your food, the older Mexican/Indian lady with the short loose curly hair and glasses, worked at Bryant Webster when I went there back in the ’80s.

    About 6 years ago I was living in the mountains working as a firefighter and running a ski shop at one of the resorts. We brought the kids down to see the grandparents and ended up at Casa Bonita. I talked to the manager, Rob Hall, and struck a deal. I’d promote Casa Bonita in the ski shop to all the poor shmucks from out of town who wanted something to do in Denver and all my friends got to eat and drink for free. Worked out very well. There was one night when a bunch of us from the fire department, EMS and the Sheriff’s Office were down in Denver for a training. That night we all ended up at Casa Bonita taking advantage of Rob’s hospitality. Well needless to say we all drank way too much. Rob let us stay after they closed and we were all running around there like kids. We all finally learned what it was like to go flying off the cliffs into the pool. The only complaint that I have about that night is the fact that I was the hottest one there. My coworkers were not the types of guys or mountain girls that you wanted to see in a wet tshirt competition. I have quite the collection of blackmail video from that night.

    Casa Bonita isn’t somewhere that you go for fine dining. You go for the kids unless of course you grew up with it and it still holds that magic for you. For me it’s like Lakeside. If I could I would buy them both and fully restore them and make the food a hell of a lot better.

  103. Oh my gosh. Blast from the past! I can’t believe I read this whole thing! LOL! Awesome! We moved from Lakewood to Loveland in the early 70’s but made frequent trips to the Denver area. I remember going to Casa Bonita…must have been shortly after they opened. Wow. Those lines! I’d never experienced waiting in line to order food. Mediocre food, at best (OK…really it was pretty crappy, but as stated by others, you go for the atmosphere – not the food). It seems like there were some years that were better than others for the grub (or should I say, not as bad as others?!). Sopapillas and honey were always awesome.
    It’s been a few years since I’ve been there, but will be going this Friday for my (step) grandson’s 4th birthday. I hope we get to sit in view of the cliff diver.
    :)

  104. The last time I ate at the Casa Bonita was in 1978. I was a long haired hippy boy on my big adventure. We smoked a bunch of pot on the way to the restaurant. I had the munchies so bad I would have eaten shoe leather. I remember that the food was absolutely delicious but looking at the picture of this guys chicken plate reminds me that it probably isnt so great. It probably wasnt so great when I went their in the 70s but I had no reference for mexican food other than tacos up to that point. I loved the waterfall and the divers. Back then it was true mexican divers. I saw a episode of “Unwrapped” on the food network and they did a 10 minute segment on the Casa Bonita. Reminded me of my good time in the 70s.

  105. I ate at the Tulsa Casa Bonita just today. And yes the ripping reviews are fair. The food tastes like a microwave dinner that has sat under a heating lamp all day. The place reeks of nearly 40 years of cheap floor cleaner and the once cool decor is all falling apart. I’m sure it’s mostly nostalgia that powers that rare desire to eat there but from time to time that desire manifests itself intensely. It was always a very special treat as a kid to eat there and I hope it remains a special treat for years to come.

  106. I can’t believe I read this entire post sitting here at my desk when I should be working, but I couldn’t stop reading. This post is definitely entertaining. And hearing about other people’s experiences makes me remember my own.

    Like most here I also have good memories of going to Casa Bonita as a kid. I don’t remember the food, but I do remember the cave, the waterfall,the arcade. It was cool, especially the arcade. ah, arcades in the 80’s…

    In high school, the Spanish department took us all to Casa Bonita on a field trip.
    That time I remember goofing off with my friends, joking about the fake marichi, but again, I don’t remember the food.

    Now after reading all these comments, I wonder if I blocked out memories of the food due to it being so bad.

    Bottom line, after reading this post I definitely want to go back to see what it’s like as an adult. I’m 31 now, and I’m sure it’ll be an interesting experience to visit one of the best known places in Denver, which from the sounds of it, appears to be frozen in time.

  107. That is so sad to hear for me. I have been telling my family about it for years now & what a great place it was when i also went as a kid. Our plan on vacation to Denver was to go there. Now my kids will never see this Disneyland-like restaurant as i also remember it the way we all did. Hopefully it will someday return the way it had been

  108. As a kid living in the Midwest, our trips to Colorado every summer included a stop at Casa Bonita. My parents hated it but put up with the awful food, health code violations and cheesy entertainment. My brother and I, on the other hand, loved it. I don’t remember eating anything other than the sopapillas (I don’t think we were allowed to order anything with meat, beans or vegetables). The majority of my memories focus on watching the cliff divers and the fantastically over-the-top decor.

  109. I took my wife there as a joke for her 40th birthday. For her family, Casa Bonita was kind of a big deal, driving out from the plains of Nebraska. The food is appalling. My neighbor (I am not making this up) had a latex glove in his meal. It astounds me they haven’t shuttered this place. As far as restaurants go, they have cliff diving teenagers.

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