Casa Bonita (lit.'pretty house' in Spanish) is a Mexican restaurant in Lakewood, Colorado, located within the Lamar Station Plaza.[5] It first opened in 1980, and was originally part of a chain of Mexican entertainment restaurants that started in Oklahoma City. The restaurant has attracted a cult following among Colorado residents since its opening, and is considered by many to be an iconic establishment of Lakewood and the greater Denver metropolitan area.

Casa Bonita
The front façade of the Casa Bonita located in Lakewood, Colorado
Restaurant information
Established1968–1993 (original restaurant)
1971–2011 (Tulsa location)
1974–2021, 2023–present (Colorado location)
Owner(s)Trey Parker and Matt Stone (2021–present)[1][2]
Previous owner(s)Unigate (1982–1992)
CKE Restaurants (1992–1997)
Star Buffet, Inc. (1997–2021)[3][4]
Food typeMexican
Street address6715 West Colfax Avenue
CityLakewood, Colorado
Postal/ZIP Code80214
CountryUnited States
Coordinates39°44′31″N 105°04′15″W / 39.741927°N 105.070828°W / 39.741927; -105.070828
Seating capacity1,100

In 2019, The Denver Post published a feature on the restaurant and described the decor, saying, "Its pink exterior conceals a vast network of nooks and crannies inside. While the main, multilevel dining room is decorated with plastic palm trees and strings of lights, different facades and themed rooms invoke regional Mexican architectural styles, including the resort of Puerto Vallarta." The centerpiece is a 30 foot (9.1 m) indoor waterfall with cliff divers, an imitation of the cliffs of Acapulco. The building is crowned with a gold dome and a statue of Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor of Mexico.[6] It was designated a historic landmark of the city in March 2015.[7][8]

Casa Bonita temporarily closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its owner filed for bankruptcy in April 2021. Later that year, it was acquired by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who gave the restaurant a significant renovation. The restaurant held a soft relaunch beginning June 23, 2023, now billing itself as The Greatest Restaurant in the World![9]

History edit

Founder Bill Waugh opened the first Casa Bonita restaurant in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1968. By the mid-1970s, the chain had expanded to locations in adjacent states and was known for its "all you can eat" beef or chicken plates and offering sopapillas—small squares of fried bread served with honey—with every meal.

In 1982, Casa Bonita's parent company, which also owned Taco Bueno fast food restaurants, was sold to Unigate (later Uniq plc). In 1992, Unigate sold the restaurants to CKE Restaurants, owner of Carl's Jr.[10] In 1997, the two remaining Casa Bonita restaurants, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Lakewood, Colorado, were spun off by CKE as part of Star Buffet.[11] The Tulsa location closed in September 2005,[12] then reopened for two years as Casa Viva, and closed again in December 2007. It was reopened by Star Buffet under the original name in late July 2008 but closed again in 2011, leaving the Lakewood location as the last Casa Bonita.[13][14] The Lakewood Historical Society chose to designate the restaurant as a city landmark in March 2015.

In March 2020, Casa Bonita closed temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Colorado Governor Jared Polis had placed a ban on in-person dining during the two-month span between March 17 and May 26. In March, several employees reported that their most recent paychecks had bounced due to insufficient funds in the Casa Bonita payroll account.[15] The restaurant's website disappeared during the summer of 2020 sometime between July 7 and July 30.[16]

On April 6, 2021, Summit Family Restaurants, Casa Bonita's owner, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Arizona.[17] On September 23, 2021, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone reached an agreement to purchase the restaurant for $3.1 million. A group named "Save Casa Bonita" filed an objection to Parker and Stone's purchase, pointing out that they had in fact made an offer first.[18] Their objection was later withdrawn, and the sale was completed by November 19.[19][20][4]

Parker and Stone spent $40 million renovating the restaurant and hired Chef Dana Rodriguez to update the menu.[21][22] The restaurant had a soft opening on May 26, 2023.[23] In early June, Casa Bonita began taking reservations for weekends beginning June 23.[24] Stone and Parker amended the employee compensation system at Casa Bonita, removing the need for wait staff to earn tips, instead paying every employee $30 per hour, much higher than the Colorado minimum wage, $13.65.[25] This came at the heels of a nationwide campaign to eliminate tipping in food service and the rise of "tipping fatigue" where customers had begun to resent paying tips.[26]

Locations edit

Lakewood, Colorado edit

Casa Bonita interiors, Lakewood, Colorado, in 2008.

The Lakewood location was built in 1973 and opened in early 1974 on Colfax Avenue west of Denver, along U.S. Route 40/I-70 Business.[27] Similar in architecture to the Tulsa location (both were previously large retail store locations) features strolling mariachis, flame jugglers (no longer allowed in 2019 for violating fire code), and a 30-foot (9.1 m) waterfall with cliff divers. The website Roadside America mentions that the restaurant has "Wild West shootouts, brawling pirates, [and] a dancing gorilla" that "can be viewed while you eat."[28] It also has a small puppet theater, a "haunted tunnel" called Black Bart's Cave, an arcade with a large skee-ball room, and a magic theater. Since 2023, as a nod to its new owners, the restaurant has references to South Park, such as a prop of Eric Cartman having food in his iconic table and a ManBearPig meet-and-greet. The restaurant is 52,000 square feet (4,800 m2) and can seat up to 1,100 patrons.[29]

Defunct locations edit

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma edit

The first Casa Bonita was opened in the summer of 1968 in Oklahoma City, at a time when Mexican food was considered a novelty in the area. The restaurant was located along U.S. Route 66 at the intersection of NW 39th and Portland. On opening, it featured themed rooms, including the Garden Room and El Pokey, a room themed as a Mexican jail. The Oklahoma City location closed in 1993. After housing other businesses, the building was demolished in 2015.[30][31]

Tulsa, Oklahoma edit

The Tulsa location opened in 1971 near the intersection of 21st and Sheridan.[32] The interior was designed to create the outdoor nighttime atmosphere of a Mexican village. Its various themed dining areas, with seating for over 500, included a village square with fountain, a 2-level lantern-lit cave, a tropical garden with 20 foot (6.1 m) waterfall and stream, and a room resembling an aristocratic dining hall with a porch along with strolling mariachis. The Tulsa location also included a puppet and magic show theater, a video arcade, a working carousel, and a gift shop.

It closed on September 30, 2005,[12] due to a reported inability to reach suitable lease terms with the property owner. It was reopened, as Casa Viva, in May 2006[33] and then closed again in December 2007. In late July 2008, the restaurant, having been sold back to its previous owner group, reopened under the original Casa Bonita name.[13] In February 2011, the restaurant failed to reopen after lengthy snowstorms hit Tulsa, and a sign on the door said it was closed for business.[34]

Little Rock, Arkansas edit

The Little Rock location opened in 1969 at the corner of University Avenue and Asher Avenue (at the time U.S. Highway 67/70), just south of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock campus. This location had many of the same features as its sister locations including a Garden Room, an El Pokey (a room themed as a Mexican jail), a fully functioning video arcade, and a gift shop. In its heyday, the Little Rock location was reported to have been the highest volume Mexican restaurant in the United States with annual sales of up to $2,500,000. That distinction would later go to the Denver location which would go on to post nearly $8,000,000 in sales on an annual basis.[35]

The restaurant closed and rebranded under the ownership of the Waugh family as "Casa Viva" on August 2, 1993, after a reported $250,000 was spent in renovations. It would revert to the original Casa Bonita branding in 1995, until closing permanently in 2005.

Fort Worth, Texas edit

Similar restaurants edit

  • Casa Bonita founder Bill Waugh founded a similar restaurant concept, Casa Viva. Unrelated to the Florida fast-food chain of the same name, it operated in the former Casa Bonita locations in Little Rock[39] (1993–1995) and Tulsa (2006–2007).[13][40]
  • Larry H. Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz, opened a restaurant called The Mayan Adventure (usually just shortened to The Mayan) in Sandy, Utah, in 2000. Casa Bonita sued Miller for trademark infringement;[41] Miller was found to have visited Casa Bonita several times.[42] The Mayan Adventure eventually closed in late 2011.[43]
  • Restaurante Arroyo, in Tlalpan, Mexico, a "super-size" Mexican restaurant.

In popular culture edit

The South Park episode "Casa Bonita" prominently features the Colorado branch of the restaurant.[44] Other episodes that mention it briefly are: "Quest for Ratings" (where a clock is labeled as showing the time at Casa Bonita), "You Have 0 Friends", "201" (where the restaurant is reportedly destroyed), "Let Go, Let Gov", and “South ParQ Vaccination Special”. Additionally, the building that houses South Park Studios was named after the restaurant.[45] In August 2021, the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, announced they would purchase Casa Bonita.[1] In South Park: The Fractured But Whole, as part of the DLC, the main story is focused on the building. The South Park connection comes about as the creators of the show and several staff of South Park recalled having fond memories frequenting the establishment as children in the Denver suburbs.

In 2009, rock band The Fray held the release party for their eponymous second album at Casa Bonita.[46]

In the reboot of Roseanne, Casa Bonita is featured as the workplace of Becky Connor in Episode 4.

The music video for Collapsing Scenery's "Resort Beyond the Last Resort", directed by Kansas Bowling and starring Boyd Rice, was partially filmed at Casa Bonita.[47]

Punk rock band SPELLS performed their song "A Huevo" at Casa Bonita.[48]

In 2018, the Denver Broncos announced their draft picks at Casa Bonita with the help of the resident magician.[49]

For several years, artist Andrew Novick has hosted a Casa Bonita-themed art show at Denver's NEXT Gallery. Novick has been to the restaurant more than 300 times and has given tours of it. He says of the restaurant, "every time I go there, I have a sense of wonder all over again because it's so big and there's so many things in there—like the waterfall—and you feel like you're outside, and the sounds and lights and everything in there. It's just ... it's unmatched."[50]

References edit

  1. ^ a b Parker, Ryan (August 13, 2021). "'South Park' Creators Strike Deal to Buy Casa Bonita, Restaurant Featured on Show". Hollywood Reporter.
  2. ^ McCormick-Cavanagh, Conor (September 27, 2021). "South Park Creators Buying Casa Bonita for $3.1 Million". Westword. Retrieved September 27, 2021.
  3. ^ "Star Buffet inks deal with 4B's Restaurants". Retrieved December 30, 2021.
  4. ^ a b "Casa Bonita Sale: Bankruptcy Judge Clears The Way For 'South Park' Creators Trey Parker And Matt Stone To Buy Iconic Restaurant – CBS Denver". November 4, 2021.
  5. ^ "JCRS Shopping Center store sign".
  6. ^ Wenzel, John (February 10, 2019). "Casa Bonita: The Definitive Guide to Colorado's world-famous Mexican restaurant". The Denver Post.
  7. ^ Briggs, Austin (March 20, 2015). "Casa Bonita named Lakewood Historical Society Landmark". The Denver Post. Retrieved November 22, 2017.
  8. ^ Whitcomb, Don (2019). The Casa Bonita you never knew. Colorado Springs, Colorado. ISBN 978-0-578-56515-6. OCLC 1205596197.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  9. ^ "Casa Bonita". Casa Bonita. 2023. Retrieved July 30, 2023.
  10. ^ Zimmerman, Martin (August 29, 1996). "Unigate sells Taco Bueno chain to Carl's Jr. parent". The Dallas Morning News. Newsbank ID 0ED3D6CA43269EF9.
  11. ^ Johnson, Greg (July 29, 1997). "CKE Plans to Serve Up Buffet-Style Chain". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 14, 2023. CKE, parent company of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's burger chains, said that Star Buffet Inc. will be composed of CKE's 16 HomeTown Buffets and two Casa Bonita...
  12. ^ a b Blossom, Debbie (September 29, 2005). "Casa Bonita says adios to Tulsa". Tulsa World.
  13. ^ a b c Postelwait, Jeff (July 19, 2008). "Fun-filled Casa Bonita to reopen: The original owners of the restaurant have returned". Tulsa World. Retrieved February 17, 2011.
  14. ^ "Throwback Tulsa: Casa Bonita closes for final time 12 years ago today". Tulsa World. January 31, 2023. Retrieved June 11, 2023.
  15. ^ Sexton, Josie (April 3, 2020). "Casa Bonita workers say their checks have bounced, pay is missing". Denver Post.
  16. ^ "Casa Bonita Website". Casa Bonita Denver. Archived from the original on July 30, 2020.
  17. ^ Lynn, Nate (April 11, 2021). "Casa Bonita files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy". KUSA-TV. Retrieved April 11, 2021.
  18. ^ Cassady, Carly; Rose, Alex (October 19, 2021). "'Save Casa Bonita' objects to sale of restaurant to South Park creators".
  19. ^ McCormick-Cavanagh, Conor (November 2, 2021). "Save Casa Bonita Withdraws Objection to Sale of Restaurant to South Park Creators". Westword. Retrieved April 14, 2023.
  20. ^ Cook, Lanie Lee (August 15, 2022). "Casa Bonita owners sue to keep some building plans secret". KDVR Fox 31 News. Retrieved August 16, 2022.
  21. ^ "Casa Bonita Partners With Dana Rodriguez, Acclaimed Denver Chef & Restaurateur – CBS Denver". November 17, 2021.
  22. ^ Richtel, Matt; Williams, David (June 6, 2023). "The Refries That Bind: A Cavernous Cantina Returns, Cliff Divers and All". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 11, 2023.
  23. ^ "@CasaBonita". Twitter. Retrieved June 11, 2023.
  24. ^ "Casa Bonita reopening: Trey Parker and Matt Stone tell New York Times they spent above $40 million on restoration". June 7, 2023. Retrieved June 9, 2023.
  25. ^ Varanasi, Lakshmi. "The creators of 'South Park' have eliminated tipping at Denver's famed Casa Bonita. Servers now make $30 an hour — and some are mad". Business Insider. Retrieved June 30, 2023.
  26. ^ Pollard, Aidan. "More businesses are asking customers to tip — and shoppers are getting sick of it". Business Insider. Retrieved June 30, 2023.
  27. ^ Meitus, Marty (March 15, 1994). "Casa Bonita at 20... Denver's Favorite Dive-In Restaurant". Rocky Mountain News. NewsBank ID 0EB4DE0EDFFFEE6D.
  28. ^ "Casa Bonita (In Transition), Lakewood, Colorado". Retrieved December 30, 2022.
  29. ^ "Casa Bonita – Lakewood, CO | Historic Mexican Restaurant and Stage Show from South Park". Retrieved January 4, 2023.
  30. ^ Stafford, Jim (September 2, 1993). "City Casa Bonita To Close Doors After 26 Years". The Daily Oklahoman. Retrieved November 22, 2017.
  31. ^ Bailey, Brianna (September 16, 2015). "Bonita memories". The Oklahoman. Retrieved November 22, 2017.
  32. ^ Maloney, Lee. "Casa Bonita: A Family Favorite". Archived from the original on December 30, 2005. Retrieved December 30, 2005.
  33. ^ Cherry, Scott (June 23, 2006). "Dining Out: Back in the house". Tulsa World.
  34. ^ Arnold, Kyle (February 17, 2011). "Casa Bonita restaurant says adios to Tulsa: Its owner, Star Buffet Inc., is apparently in financial straits". Tulsa World. Retrieved February 17, 2011.
  35. ^ "Casa comeback: original owners revive landmark restaurant, plan expansion of hamburger chain into Little Rock. - Free Online Library". Retrieved March 17, 2021.
  36. ^ "Wild is the word for Wild West Outfitters' Hulen Mall unit". Daily News Record. January 5, 1994. Wild West Outfitters' new store at the Hulen Mall in Fort Worth, TX, ... [occupies] more than 20,000 sq ft (1,900 m2) of what was once a Casa Bonita restaurant...
  37. ^ Eyrich, Claire (May 21, 1982). "Something for all tastes". Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
  38. ^ Karash, Julius (April 6, 1985). "Casa Bonita in Fort Worth is up for sale". Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
  39. ^ Blossom, Debbie (October 1, 2005). "Casa Viva restaurant on menu". Tulsa World.
  40. ^ Blossom, Debbie (May 27, 2006). "Brand new Casa". Tulsa World. Retrieved February 17, 2011.
  41. ^ "Jazz owner Miller sued over Restaurant". Associated Press. July 5, 2000.
  42. ^ Colden, Anne (July 4, 2000). "Casa Bonita sues 'copycat'". Denver Post. p. C1. Newsbank ID 0EAF457DBA96D654.
  43. ^ Fidel, Steve. "Economy takes down Mayan Adventure, Spaghetti Mamas restaurants".
  44. ^ Richtel, Matt; Williams, David (June 6, 2023). "The Refries That Bind: A Cavernous Cantina Returns, Cliff Divers and All". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 9, 2023.
  45. ^ "Casa Bonita episode for South Park".[permanent dead link]
  46. ^ Boyle, Grace (April 16, 2014). "Casa Bonita's 40 Years of Sopapillas and Cliff Divers". Eater Denver. Retrieved January 4, 2023.
  47. ^ Koczon, Mallie (October 26, 2018). "This young, female director just created this unreal video for Collapsing Scenery". Galore. Retrieved March 21, 2023.
  48. ^ Denver Sounds - SPELLS at Casa Bonita, retrieved December 31, 2022
  49. ^ Hernandez, Elizabeth (April 28, 2018). "Denver Broncos' draft at Casa Bonita makes for cheesy fun with a side of queso". The Denver Post.
  50. ^ Nick, Stacy (February 26, 2021). "Waterfalls, Cliff Divers and Gorillas, Oh My: Artists Pay Tribute To Casa Bonita". KUNC.

External links edit