I recently had the opportunity to dine with my family in the soon to be re-opened Casa Bonita in Lakewood, Colorado. For those of you unfamiliar with Casa Bonita, let me share a brief history. The restaurant opened in 1974 and was the second location in the chain that originated in Oklahoma City. It operated through the years as a right of passage for all Colorado children growing up. This massive 1,100 seat restaurant is more than just bad Mexican food and all you can eat sopapillas. Within its walls it housed several attractions including cliff divers, mariachi bands, puppet and magic shows, and an arcade. I spent most of my youth going to Casa Bonita on a yearly basis and enjoyed many birthday parties here. The restaurant officially closed in 2020 during the pandemic and the ownership at the time declared bankruptcy shortly after. In 2021 it was purchased by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, for $3 million. Since then, they have invested $40 million into restoring the restaurant to its glory.
Pictures and videos were strictly prohibited inside the restaurant during this preview event. We began our journey inside after getting checked in and being allowed to take photos outside in front of the iconic pink façade and fountain.
The thing that struck me right away is how natural it felt to be walking through the doors despite not having been to the restaurant in over a decade. A rush of nostalgia hit that would linger with me throughout our 2 ½ hours spent inside. They have maintained the cafeteria style ordering system of the past, so we walked through the long queue to get to the ordering stations set further in. This queue is well themed to old 1970s style streets of various Mexican towns and resorts such as Puerto Vallarta. There are carts with fake fruit, cobblestone paths, and vintage posters adorning the walls. These posters entice visitors with what they will soon find beyond the entrance to Casa Bonita, including the ever-popular cliff divers. Once you get through the queue you are let out into a beautiful plaza covered with bright picado banners and themed to feel as if it is nighttime. The area is new as far as I can tell, no one in our party could seem to remember it from before. This is where you will find about six windows to order from. Once your order is placed you continue through the queue to pick up your food. All the food is served up via long buffet lines in front of you (think chipotle) and your dishes are put together as they pass down the line to the various stations. At the end you pick up your food on trays and follow a host out into the restaurant.
This is when the real wow factor of Casa Bonita hits. You turn the corner, and it immediately opens into a large multi-level space. It’s dark, it’s colorful, the smell of chlorine hits you and it’s just magic. For someone who has never been I think it’s hard to describe why it’s so special, but the theming is and always has been so detailed. You are standing in the middle of a Mexican village. There are the facades of buildings on one side and a giant waterfall with rock work anchoring the whole thing right in the middle. As we walked past the mariachi band playing subdued but cheerful music, we took our seats adjacent to the waterfall. The table was pre-set with water and chips & salsa. Not sure if that practice with continue during normal operation or not. Our server came over and took our order for any soft drinks (included) or specialty beverages both alcoholic and non-alcoholic (not included). One of the running jokes about Casa Bonita before its closure was about how terrible the food was. It was bad. Really bad. Trey and Matt made it an emphasis to ensure the food quality changed. One part of that was to bring in a James Beard nominated chef, Dana Rodriguez, to oversee the kitchen. The food was good. It wasn’t great but it was markedly better than it was before. Fresh ingredients being cooked on actual stoves and ovens (they steamed everything before). There is a good variety here with eight entrees to choose from that includes enchiladas, carnitas, mole, and chile rellenos. They also have a kid’s menu. All entrees include the chips & salsa fresca and unlimited sopaipillas.
Tickets must be purchased for their phased re-opening which kicks off tonight and tomorrow and then begins again on June 29-July 1. Tickets are priced at $39.99 for adults and $24.99 for children 3-12. Right now, the only way to get tickets is by signing up for their online newsletter. It is unclear if they are randomly selecting people through the mailing list, but our server told us they are anticipating about 3 million covers off the invites being sent out through the end of July.
The restaurant is full of kinetic energy from the moment you walk into the main dining space. Mariachi bands wandering around, cliff divers every 20 minutes putting on a show, characters leading younger diners on a treasure hunt through the restaurant and atmosphere actors just walking around and interacting with guests. Before the restaurant closed one of the signature characters was a gorilla that would periodically escape from his cage and run around causing a scene. It was a wonderful thing to behold when I saw that this gorilla has now been morphed into the legendary ManBearPig.
Once you are done dining you are free to wander around the various rooms to find more adventure. The list of things to do is long: Puppet shows, Black Barts cave, Magic shows, Arcade games, Caricature drawings, A museum showcasing the history of the restaurant through the years, cliff divers. They also added several stand-alone bars for older guests to gather and hang out. One of the most impressive transformations was in the arcade. This area has been fully re-themed to be an old western saloon complete with a root beer bar with several different locally crafted root beers on tap. All the games are operated off a card system that keeps track of your credits and tickets. The most impressive part of this space was the very large and heavily detailed shooting range that has been added. Think Frontierland Shooting arcade on a slightly smaller scale. They also have a large gift shop with just about anything you could possibly want adorned with the Casa Bonita logo. Coffee mugs, magnets, water bottles, throw blankets, t-shorts, sweatshirts, the amount of merch they had was overwhelming.
The main takeaway I had from my experience at Casa Bonita was one of familiarity yet improvement. I was awash with nostalgia and happy memories from my youth. I was amazed at how everything felt the same but somehow it was different. It was newer, cleaner, shinier. Matt and Trey are on record saying they never wanted to renovate, they wanted to restore. They wanted to take people back to the opening days of Casa Bonita in the 1970s. Complete with custom made swimsuits for the cliff divers that replicate the suits worn in those first years of operation. I think they accomplished that goal. Everything that was great about the Disneyland of Mexican restaurants is still there. For those that grew up running around Black Barts cave and gorging on too many sopaipillas, the magic is still there. For those who have never experienced Casa Bonita…a wonderful and wacky world waits for you. Dine under the stars of the Mexican sky while you watch ManBearPig run by, and cliff divers jump off waterfalls and Mariachi bands serenade you. It’s a fever dream in all the best ways.
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