On the one-year anniversary of the day when all Colorado restaurants were ordered closed to on-premises dining, there are signs of life at Casa Bonita.
Not at 6715 West Colfax Avenue, the home of the pink palace since 1974 — but on the web, where casabonitadenver.com has been revived, after a year offline and endless speculation about the future of Colorado's first, and certainly most legendary, eatertainment concept.
Casa Bonita is "celebrating 46 years of family fun," according to the website, which doesn't offer much more (although the video section is stuffed better than a Casa Bonita taco). The Facebook link is broken, and while the home page promises "red hot deals, just a click away" as of March 17, that click simply takes you to a repeat of the message that "Casa Bonita is re-opening soon! Check back here for more information as it becomes available."
Still, with spring just days away, could there be a better time for rebirth?
“I don’t expect a change in regulations until the vaccine is more broadly distributed,” owner Robert Wheaton told us last month. “The message to the community is that we expect to be back in operation by the beginning of the summer.”
Or perhaps sooner? Jefferson County, where Casa Bonita is located, is currently at Level Blue on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment dial, which allows restaurants to reopen at 50 percent capacity — though there are caps that would keep the 52,000-square-foot space well below half of its total capacity of 1,000 diners. Still, other Jeffco establishments have applied for variances or been approved for 5 Star certification, which loosens some restrictions.
As Wheaton acknowledged, it will take some time to get the place up and running, cleaning up a year of dust and bringing back employees. “Every day that stays closed, it’s increasingly difficult to get it reopened,” he said. “Our top priorities there are the dive area and the waterfall, which require constant attention even when not in use.”
Founded by Bill Waugh, Casa Bonita was actually a tiny chain of big restaurants; in 1982 he sold it to British food manufacturer Unigate, which passed the remaining establishments to CKE Restaurants in 1992. CKE spun off the last two survivors as part of Star Buffet, which today owns 21 other (considerably less high-concept) restaurants across the country, as well as this last Casa Bonita.
The place is such a pop-culture landmark that Lakewood designated it an official historic landmark five years ago; South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker devoted an entire segment to Casa Bonita in 2003, and it's been mentioned in numerous other installments, including the recent South Park "Vaccination" special, which ended with a report that Casa Bonita had reopened.
Artrepreneur Andrew Novick, perhaps Casa Bonita's top fan (he's eaten there over 300 times), has been in touch with Wheaton off and on during the pandemic, but hadn't heard of any recent plans for reopening. The ongoing lack of activity at the restaurant inspired him to launch a GoFundMe campaign on March 14, raising both money and awareness of how much support Casa Bonita has in the community. In just 48 hours, the site raised $2,000.
Did the campaign also raise enough interest to speed up Wheaton's timeline for reopening Casa Bonita? Or did it simply raise his willingness to consider offers from some of the suitors eager to take Casa Bonita off his hands? Novick doesn't know (and Wheaton and those rumored suitors aren't talking).
But Novick does know this: He's ready for his next meal there.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.