By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Everyone who lives along the Front Range must visit Casa Bonita once. Really, you're not a resident if you haven't seen the cliff divers and suffered the mariachis, climbed through Black Bart's cave, muscled your way through the knots of sticky, rapidly greening children and eaten the sopaipillas.
I've been to Casa Bonita. Even better, I've actually seen the kitchen. It's not something I'd ever want to do twice.
Everyone who wants to say they've experienced Colorado's true cuisine has to go to the Buckhorn Exchange at least once, sit under the whale penis, look their dinner in the glossy glass eye, and eat the yak and rattlesnake and seventeen pounds of charred cow in a single sitting.
6263 W. Jewell Ave.
Lakewood, CO 80232
I've been there. Done that. Several times. And yeah, I've eaten the balls.
This ain't my first rodeo, as they say. I've done my culinary tour of Colorado. I may not be to the Mile High born, but I have eaten the hell out of my adoptive home, taken to it with the fervor of a convert — of a man who knows precisely how green the grass is on the other side of the fence and has gladly turned his back. Still, it seems that the longer I live here, the deeper Denver's history of weirdness grows — the more places keep popping up that I have to see, have to experience. Places like White Fence Farm.
We'd made it across acres of parking lot — past the giant chicken car, the manicured lawns, the bunnies cavorting in the grass, the landscaped duck pond (I have this weird thing about taunting tame ducks). I'd managed to get Laura, a militant, fairly aggressive atheist, past the restaurant's front counter, past the sign that'd caught her eye — the one that said something along the lines of how even though prayer wasn't allowed in schools, it was more than welcome in the dining room — without her picking a fight. And I'd managed to get my mom to bypass the gift shop and the Christmas store. We'd even successfully executed the White Fence Farm dance: jumping through the hoops of getting a number, waiting for that number to be called, taking that number across the lobby and to the counter where the ancient dining room pit boss tore my ticket and checked to make sure I wasn't trying to pull anything sneaky, then taking my number to another girl who seated us with a smile and a flutter of her ruffles.
Fortunately, the White Fence Farm has beer (although the menu warns that any loud or unchristian drunkards will be bounced immediately), and I needed a drink badly. I ordered a tall pilsner glass, another for Laura, wine for my mom. Round one.
While we waited for our drinks, I ticked off some of the rules, the bits of hard-earned critic wisdom that this visit to White Fence Farm was violating. For example, when the parking lot is bigger than the restaurant, be wary. Wonder to yourself — even if only briefly — why the establishment in question needs so much space. What kind of crowds are they expecting that they have dedicated so much valuable real estate to blacktop and white lines?
The answer is big ones — really, really motherfucking big ones.
Here's another truism: Don't trust a restaurant that has its own gift shop. Not if you're looking for food. If you're looking for gifts — for little ceramic figurines of fat children praying and Christmas ornaments in June — then by all means, go nuts. But if dinner is your primary concern, don't trust a place with a gift shop. Or an arcade. Or, God forbid, its own petting zoo.
White Fence Farm has all three. Plus live music, slides, a carriage museum, horsie rides, its own playground...
The original White Fence Farm restaurant, in Romeoville, Illinois, dates back to the 1920s, when it was opened by Stuyvesant Peabody, a Chicagoland coal millionaire. It was sold in the '50s to the Hasterts, an honest, God-fearin' farm family (yeah, they're related to the former Republican Speaker of the House), and today can seat 1,000. In 1973, metro Denver got its White Fence Farm, the only other one in the country (except for a few takeout spots), and it has the same time-machine concept dressed in Calvin Coolidge drag with a restaurant at its heart. That poor girl on the other side of the room hauling around tray-jacks and mountains of chicken while dressed like a Mormon prairie wife? Like a stripper or the guy who wears the Goofy suit at Disneyland, she's doing that for a paycheck while upholding some kind of theme-restaurant mutual hallucination that, while within the bounds of the White Fence complex, it is really 1924. In Oklahoma. And that you, the customer, have been invited over for an ol'-fashioned country dinner at the Wilson and Wuestner farm.
The interior looks like a clearinghouse for dead-relative knick-knackery, like the Palace of a Thousand Grandmas. The white walls and window frames, the flowered curtains, the lovingly polished fixtures and aged photos of children dressed like cowboys or in their Sunday best — it all belies the throbbing, commercial core of a place designed rather like a Vegas casino: difficult to escape, deceptively dressed in outmoded finery, built only as a machine made for separating rubes from their dollars.