The pink-and-white stucco tower of Casa Bonita has been beckoning families, tourists and gaggles of curious humans off the busy Colfax strip and through its big brown doors for more than four decades. Colorado’s most confounding and simultaneously beloved piece of pop culture has been a constant force, an unwavering and unchanged beacon of the bizarre. And now it’s being recognized for its historic role: On Friday, March 20 at 10:30 a.m., the Lakewood Historical Society will present a bronze marker to Casa Bonita’s general manager, honoring the restaurant’s new status as a Lakewood Historical Society Landmark.
"Part of what Casa Bonita is recognized for is its architecture, but mostly it was its contribution to the community — I don't know what other place in Lakewood hires that many people," says Ann Moore of the Lakewood Historical Society. Moore shares that the restaurant employs 200 people year-round, topping out at around 300 employees during the peak summer season. The family entertainment destination is also conscious in hiring young people, making it a training ground for many employees as their first job. It's this commitment to the surrounding Lakewood community that the society found most compelling for historic status.
Moore says often, businesses and building owners can be wary of such a designation, because it implies that changing or even demolishing a structure might become difficult in the future if it is considered "historic." But Moore assures there are no legally-binding constraints that come with a Lakewood Historical Society designation; it is purely about recognizing important places that make the young city of Lakewood special. Casa Bonita actually initiated the interest in a historical landmark, getting in touch with the preservation group a while back. In a metro area that is redeveloping empty parking lots, older buildings and run-down strip malls like the one that houses the restaurant at a fast clip, the designation is a significant prize. As much as Casa Bonita is loved by many, it is also an often-misunderstood place; the coolness and kitsch of this faux-Mexican village in a commercial area of Lakewood can easily be overshadowed by its notoriously terrible food. But Casa Bonita has never been about the food.
Casa Bonita has remained virtually unchanged since its 1974 birth, and walking inside is like stepping into a fictional world: Nowhere else in Colorado will you find a restaurant with a waterfall as its centerpiece. The place is lined with realistic fake palm trees and volcanic rock that almost brushes up against the black-painted office-tile ceiling where the sky would be. The path to getting a table is part of the experience: All visitors must wander a winding food line carrying a cafeteria tray of piping-hot Casa slop, moving past tile and plaster walls adorned with bullfighting posters, along rocky terrain and through mining caves just to get a seat.
Eating goes quickly, though; Casa Bonita’s food is just the ticket to get through the door to a world of puppet shows, gunfights and guy in-a-gorilla-suit chases. The waterfall is also a functional pool, with teen divers taking jumps hourly for your viewing pleasure. There’s also an arcade with Skee-Ball, a dank basement housing a miniature ballroom where a magician performs, and the haunted realm of Black Bart’s Cave (the March 20 ceremony will be followed by a tour of that cave!).
Over the years, Westword has chronicled many trips to our beloved Casa Bonita — For newbs, Joel Warner crafted a handy survival guide to this restaurant of wonder. Here's some expert advice on seating — because where else in North America are you going to find a restaurant with an indoor waterfall you can sit next to?:
4) Demand a table by the waterfall.And although much of the Casa Bonita experience is geared toward kids, the place also packs in large groups of college students, seniors, couples on dates and annual family get-togethers. That’s perhaps Casa Bonita’s greatest triumph: While it attracts its fair share of out-of-towner lookie-loos fascinated by its starring role in a 2003 episode of South Park, legions of devoted Coloradans still make the trek to the pretty house. In 2014, Westword wanted to show the world that Casa Bonita was really real, so we snuck a video camera in for some undercover footage:
Casa Bonita employees are like the Navy SEALS of waitstaff. The place is a well-oiled machine, a perfectly calibrated cadre of maître d's, busboys and margarita servers, so it's only natural not to complain when they sit you in the mine shaft or spooky forest or some other forlorn corner far away from all the action; they seem to know best. But stand strong. You came here for the flame-juggling, the cliff-diving, the inappropriate shenanigans involving make-believe natives and a guy in a gorilla suit, damn it, and you're not going to take anything less than a table by the waterfall, where all the good shit goes down. Yes, they'll make you wait a bit for a table to open up, but since you've already been waiting in line for an hour, a few more minutes won't hurt.
Historic designations are usually reserved for turn-of-the-last-century structures, famous battlegrounds and municipal spots where important decisions were made. But the fact that such an honor is being bestowed upon this roadside attraction makes complete sense, because Casa Bonita is much more than a restaurant. While the neo-Wild West metro area changes drastically with each boom and bust, Casa Bonita remains a constant, a reminder that no matter how big Denver gets, it’s still a strange little Mexican-influenced cowtown.
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