History Colorado staff members share photos and memories of Lakewood’s grand pink palace.
My grandfather, Alfredo Cardenas, who is a Chicano artist from the Northside won the final art contest at NEXT Gallery before Covid closed Casa Bonita with his Milagro art piece of a tortilla burned with the likeness of Casa Bonita! It was his rendition of the classic Milagro of Jesus that would appear on toast or even a stain on the wall and would attract pilgrims and devotees. This piece was his take on the cultural significance of Casa Bonita and a fun way for him to relate his favorite cultural tradition (tortilla making) and a Denver icon that has its own sort of fervor and love.
~ Isiah Kaleth, Security Guard
There was a time when a trip to Casa Bonita was considered an educational enrichment opportunity. These are photos of the Teller-Garden Place Elementary 4th grade field trip to Casa Bonita in the 1979-1980 school year. We got to tour the kitchen (we were clearly VERY impressed with the dish sanitizer!), eat some sopapillas, and there might have been an appearance by the monkey mascot or a cliff diver. One of the teachers dressed up for the occasion, but it looks like the students all just wore our best 1970s striped fashion.
~ Liz Cook, Tribal Communications Liaison
As a 30-some-odd out-of-stater with lots of visiting 30-some-odd out-of-state friends, I can tell you that our Denver A to Z exhibition is a consistent surprise in that "Casa Bonita is a real place?!" There is a whole generation that grew up with the famous “South Park” episode and is intimately familiar with the concepts of divers, Black Bart's Cave, and flag-raising sopapillas - without ever realizing it was a depiction of a Colorado landmark restaurant and not just a gag for the show.
~ Chris Juergens, Anschutz Curator of Military History
I grew up in the Greenhorn Valley located in southern Colorado and even in that rural mountain town, Casa Bonita was known as an iconic restaurant. Mostly due to its feature on South Park, but also because we all knew that despite the terrible food, it was a wildly entertaining place to visit. My favorite memory of Casa Bonita was stopping there after a summer trip to Water World with my friends in 2013. After a long day in the sun unlimited sopapillas, a gorilla show, and cliff divers were exactly what we needed. Before leaving, we made sure to stop by the “old-timey” photograph booth and get ourselves a souvenir that really encapsulated the spirit of the old Casa Bonita.
~ Cassidy Nemick, Collections Specialist
My earliest memories from Casa Bonita are from second grade! I went to elementary school in Wyoming and Casa Bonita was such a huge hit that every year the second graders from Afflerbach Elementary School would all hop on a bus and take a day long field trip to drive into Colorado from Laramie County Wyoming, to play at the restaurant. Years later, my family relocated to Denver and by the time I was in high school some of the swim team got jobs working as the divers. I was stopping in for the night just to get silly with some friends and I saw my friend Josh Baron do the dive performance. He came up to me to give me a hug and I saw that his front tooth was missing! I asked him how it happened and he said it was an injury from the dive performance. He wore his toothy grin like a badge of honor. I swear I asked him that night if Casa Bonita was paying for his new tooth! I’m hoping to celebrate my birthday there this year, so if you see me at Casa Bonita at all during the month of July, please bother me and let’s take some photographs with that gorilla. I so hope they bring that weird little show back!
~ Bianca Barriskill, Koch Fellow, History Colorado Intern
The first time I visited as an adult, some friends were visiting from out of town and specially requested dinner at Casa Bonita. I had to look up the address online (who pays attention to cross streets when they’re a kid?), and the first several pages of google results were all some variation of “‘South Park’ didn't make this place up! It's real!" That visit became the first of a steady cadence of return trips, eventually with our two daughters. Along the way we’ve had memorable family visits, from coaxing our scared daughters through Black Bart’s Cave when they were probably too young (and realizing it is sized for the height of kids’ heads, not adults) to celebrating my 40th birthday with way too many sopapillas in the cabana perched right next to the waterfall.
~Jason Hanson, Chief Creative Officer, Director of Interpretation & Research
My favorite memory of Casa Bonita is going there for school field trips. I remember winding through the lines to pick up my lunch nestled in a red, plastic basket before sitting down at my table. I would play around with the red flag to get my well-deserved order of sopapillas. Of course, I loved the cave divers but was terrified of the cave. I haven't been in years and I'm really excited to go back.
~ Ani Steele, Public Programs and Events Manager
As a kid in Denver, there were a few things I knew for sure. John Elway was the greatest, being small made it easy to weasel to the front of lines at Elitches, and a birthday wasn't a birthday unless it was at Casa Bonita. My dad agreed, and we spent as many birthdays as we could watching cliff divers as we ate enough sopapillas to make us sick. We'd hide in Black Bart's cave, we did go chasing waterfalls, and that's where I fell in love with canned green beans. After I became an adult, and Dad moved to Idaho, these trips became less frequent. But one time, Dad was making a trip back to Denver, and it happened to be during the birthday of one of his grandkids. There was no doubt in his mind where we should eat that night. And after a night of mariachi music, escaping gorillas, and mediocre arcade games we snapped a picture of him and his grandkids in front of the fountain.
A few years later Dad passed away suddenly, making this our final trip to the kitschy Casa.