"The greatest restaurant in the world" has South Park ownership, cliff divers, and a 600,000-person long wait list

Casa Bonita is a restaurant that first opened in 1974 in Lakewood, Colorado, just outside of Denver, as part of a chain. It was a huge restaurant with many rooms and a theme park-like mentality. It had actual cliff divers, who would dive off fake rocks into a pool, an arcade, a cave with treasure in it, mariachi bands, and much more.

Over the decades, it eventually fell into disrepair, and the food was considered horrible, even sickening, but it captured the imagination of Denver area children. Two such children were young Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who would grow up to create the South Park animated television show.

They even created a 2003 episode of South Park, in which Cartman does some pretty despicable things in order to score a visit to Casa Bonita (Season 7, Episode 11). The restaurant depicted in the episode as so outsized and incredible that many viewers must have assumed it was fictional: comedically constructed to be a ten-year-old's dream restaurant. But everything illustrated in the episode was very, very real.

In 2021, the restaurant was facing bankruptcy and closure when Parker and Stone came to the rescue. They bought Casa Bonita for $3 million, then pumped increasing amounts of money into its renovation and rejuvenation until the bill came to a reported $40 million. They repaired every aspect of the crumbling infrastructure, brought in new executive chef Dana Rodriguez, and upped the wage for employees to $30 per hour.

Casa Bonita finally re-opened on a limited basis in July 2023, and is running closer to a full schedule. And it's so popular that Rodriguez said in March that it's got a waiting list 600,000 people long. You can't just get a reservation. All you can do is register for the restaurant's mailing list and wait for them to contact you with a date and time. And wait. And wait. For months.

Scott Gairdner, of the great podcast Podcast: The Ride, scored a reservation, flew his family in from Los Angeles, and rapturously declared Casa Bonita "the greatest restaurant in the world"

Screengrab: Dave Chung / YouTube.com

Now, Gairdner is a theme park podcaster who is obsessed with Chuck E. Cheese, so you might want to consider the eccentricities of the source. But personally, I'm very intrigued.

Gairdner told his podcast partners Michael Carlson and Jason Sheridan that Parker and Stone took the restaurant and its features and upgraded them perfectly, honoring their history, but giving them a new sheen. He says that it must have looked like a decaying '70s restaurant until the renovation, and that the renovation maintained that aesthetic but reinvigorated it.

"I feel like what they've done here, they just decided it is perma-'70s. 'Let's not fight it.' But it's this dreamy '70s — it's like a storybook '70s. It's the most pleasant, sun-hued '70s, mixed with vibes of [Disney Imagineer] Tony Baxter's New Fantasyland. It is so charming."

Screengrab: Dave Chung / YouTube.com

Gairdner enthuses about the cliff diving show and the vibes of the restaurant generally:

"It's just this cascade of glowing and amazing theatrical light. And then the twinkling stars all over the ceiling, which I know they didn't have before. Lighting: incredible. Sound: incredible. They pumped Broadway stage money into this place. It is so Disney-level. It's insane. …

It is somewhere between [EPCOT's] Mexico Pavilion and [Disney ride] Pirates of the Caribbean. … And I can't believe they pulled that off. It sounds like nonsense when they say in South Park: 'It's the Disneyland of Mexican restaurants!' I bet at that time it was said kind of in jest. But now it just is. It fully is that. It's incredible."

Gairdner says that Casa Bonita now has all its previous features, now renovated from '70s-cheap-and-decaying to Disneyland-quality-'70s-aesthetics-evoking:

  • An indoor Mexican village;
  • Cliff diving;
  • Black Bart's Cave;
  • An arcade;
  • A wandering gorilla (?);
  • A puppet show
  • A magic show;
  • Mariachi bands;
  • Caverns;
  • A mine room;
  • A jail;
  • And more.

Gairdner said the food was not great, but that the sopaipilla dessert was outstanding.

Here is a video about Casa Bonita by Denver vlogger Dave Chung: