Andrew Novick discovered Casa Bonita when he was five, soon after the pink eatertainment palace opened at 6715 West Colfax Avenue, near where his mother worked in Lakewood. “I’ve been going there my whole life,” says the artrepreneur. “My brother and I had some birthdays there and went as kids. I don’t have a specific recollection of why I liked it, what I liked about Black Bart’s Cave; I just knew I liked it.”
As a teenager living in southeast Denver, he liked it, too, going there often “just to get out of the suburbs.” But his passion soon grew more intense, he recalls: “When I first started liking it a lot, I was at the University of Colorado Boulder, where I first met people who weren’t from here, and I would take them to Denver to do fun stuff. Going to Casa Bonita with someone for the first time is what made me love it so much.”
And when there are hundreds of someones like that, that’s a whole lotta love. On Sunday, February 24, Andrew Novick will host a veritable lovefest at Casa Bonita: Andrew Novick’s X-Treme Casa Bonita Adventure and Fundraiser.
Novick started tracking his visits back in 2006, when he took the Melvins to Casa Bonita. “They’d say, ‘You sure know a lot about this place. How many times have you been here?,’” he remembers. He didn’t know. So during the band’s concert that night at the Gothic, Novick started counting, estimating that he’d gone to Casa Bonita two or three times a year as a kid, then more often as a young adult, showing friends the town — and wound up deciding he’d been there 200 times. And in the dozen years since, Novick thinks he’s gone another 100, averaging eight visits a year.
But that count could be low, too, since he’s now taking semi-regular tours there. A half-dozen years ago, Novick hosted a big group at Casa Bonita for the Denver Modernism Show. “That was really when my crazy tours started happening,” he says. “I went around, I just started making up things. I’d point to bullet holes, say they were from the original Black Bart gunfight.
“There are some half-truths on my tour,” he admits. Although he’s done some research on the place, he thinks it might be time to talk to the people who worked on the original structure, maybe even do a book.
Because, really, you don’t need to make up stories about Casa Bonita when there’s already so much there. “Even those who’ve been here fifty times, they see things they’ve never seen,” Novick says. “With any creative venture, I try to do something that hasn’t been done before. I like to be able to expose people to things.”
And, in fac, that's what Novick does with of all his art ventures, which range from cereal bars at the Denver County Fair to his movie JonBenet’s Tricycle, with other ventures along the way emphasizing his awesome collections.
But nothing is as awesome as Casa Bonita. As he mulls over the times he’s been there, he admits: “I think my estimate is fairly conservative. I go there almost every month.”
Recently he’s gone there with people from Meow Wolf, the Santa Fe-based arts extravaganza that’s opening a Denver outpost, and in November he hosted a special brunch there following the first Denver Immersive Summit. Casa Bonita is nothing if not immersive. “The immersive people, they’re looking at the details,” Novick says. “That’s a pretty fun thing, taking people looking at it as a creative, as a maker.”
The Casa Bonita crew appreciates their interest, too. “That’s the cool thing about Casa Bonita,” Novick says. “They’re very friendly to those being respectful of the place.”
And so they’re doing some special things for his special day. Novick is taking over the Magic Show Room, where entertainment will include a puppet show with an Andrew Novick puppet, as well as performances by Mentalist Magician: Miss Claire Voyant. He’s anticipating such a crowd that he won’t be able to offer his standard tours, “but I’m making a self-guided tour, with several customizations,” he says. “I’m basically hiding Easter eggs all over, [and] there will be some prizes and stuff.” He’ll also be selling merch, including pins, the resurrected cliff diver floaty pens and other classic collectibles.
Whenever a group larger than 200 comes to Casa Bonita, the restaurant donates 20 percent of the take to charity. Novick’s already sold 200 tickets, is going for 300, and plans to make Food Bridge Marketplace, a food incubator on Navajo Street that just got its nonprofit status, the beneficiary.
Which raises the question of whether what Casa Bonita serves is actually food.
“I either get the chicken deluxe or the chile rellenos, deep-fried chile rellenos. For people who complain about the food, they’re actually great,” Novick says. “I get chile rellenos all over town, and I’d say they’re better than half of the deep-fried chile rellenos I get everywhere.The green chile is good, too.”
He also gives high points to the cheese enchiladas that come with anything ordered “deluxe,” the fajitas (“You really can’t mess up fajitas”), and the Chocolate Bandito, a cross between a slurpee and a chocolate shake, with “granular ice.”
For his 300th meal, Casa Bonita will offer an Andrew Neopolitan Bandito, layering chocolate and strawberry, as well as a first-ever sopaipilla toppings bar. “I also got to invent my own dish, the Andrew Deluxe,” he notes. “It’s all my favorite things: one chile relleno, two cheese enchiladas, a taco, beans and rice. The idea is to show people the chile rellenos.” There will be free refills of everything but the chile rellenos.
“The restaurant’s been open 45 years; it’s clearly not about the food,” he concludes. “There’s no reason to even complain about the food. That’s a waste of time.”
Eight Andrew Novick Recommendations at Casa Bonita
1. The pink bullfighter room. “That’s one of my favorites,” Novick says. “That’s one a lot of people haven’t seen.” This room is the farthest from the kitchen — estimates put it a quarter-mile away — and few people want to work the section, he adds.
2. The puppet show. Arrive early, because the puppets take off in the evening. Novick usually comes for dinner after 6 p.m., and says, “I don’t get to see the puppet show a lot. By the time you’re done eating, it’s over.”
3. The pink palace room. “That’s really cool,” Novick says. “Because of the concave ceiling, there are all sorts of audio throws in the room, and the sound waves travel.”
4. The bridge behind the waterfall, an especially cool vantage point. “You’ve seen the waterfall, you’ve seen the divers,” he says. “This is kind of a behind-the-scenes thing, and you see the full height of the restaurant.” As a bonus, the tables right behind the waterfall are “the most humid place to eat in Colorado,” he promises.
5. “I love what used to be the live birdcage, by the gift shop,” Novick says. The birds are gone, but the “sad tour stop” remains.
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6. As seen on TV! Everyone loves the South Park table, which is “a lot of people’s context nowadays,” Novick says, adding that “there are South Park characters hidden around in the rocks.”
7. The Magic Show Room, the site of the 300th birthday festivities. Novick recommends getting a big group picture on the stage.
8. Black Bart’s Cave, of course, specifically the mouth of the dragon. “That’s where I always stop and take pictures of whoever I’m with,” Novick says. “It’s Kodak spot number five.”
Andrew Novick’s X-Treme Casa Bonita Adventure and Fundraiser runs from noon to 7 p.m. Sunday, February 24; find out more and make reservations at isaveeverything.com. And don’t miss Pretty in Pink, the related art show that opens from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, February 22, at Next Gallery, near Casa Bonita at 6851 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood; find out more at nextartgallery.com.