Casa Bonita: Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive?

We finally won the Casa Bonita lottery and got the email after nearly a year on the list. For those who don’t know, the only way to get a reservation at Casa Bonita is to be on the waiting list. You cannot, and I am emphatically writing this, you cannot walk in without a reservation!

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (40)Let’s rewind about 40 years, to Ryan’s Colorado childhood. Okay, maybe 45 years. Ryan is my husband and he’s one of those kids who went to Casa Bonita during childhood, and yes, he loved it, a lot. When I moved to Littleton with him in 2000, it was one of the first places he took me.

I clearly remember two things about that trip. First, I had the most terrible wine I’ve ever tasted. I am aware, now, that ordering wine at Casa Bonita in 2000 wasn’t something anyone did—ever. My wine tasted like it was a $3 box that had been on the shelf since the restaurant opened in 1974. 

Second, I recall Ryan saying, “Black Bart’s Cave used to be a lot scarier.” 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (2)

We went back around 2013, with our 8-year-old niece. I did not order wine that time (lesson learned) and found it much more enjoyable to go with a kid in tow. Although, I distinctly remember Ryan saying the bottom of the cavern in Black Bart’s Cave was only a few inches down. His niece, however, was satisfyingly afraid in Black Bart’s Cave, so, mission complete. 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (16)
I went to Casa Bonita and all I got was this duck. True story. I won it at the arcade.

Fast forward to a Sunday afternoon in June. We took our friends Caleb and Mechelle. Now living in Westminister, they grew up in Cheyenne and would go to Casa Bonita as kids after field trips to Denver. 

Cowboy Up at Little America & the 128th Cheyenne Frontier Days

We made it in time for our 1:30 p.m. reservation despite terrible traffic on Interstate 25. There is a 15-minute grace period to make a reservation time, and I do not doubt that Ryan would have done anything necessary to make it to Casa Bonita in time. When we saw the familiar huge pink, slightly garish building, we breathed a sigh of relief. 

Thankfully, we have an Express Lane pass. I’d highly recommend you buy one if you drive I25 from Loveland. That freeway sucks.

Most of you probably know that Trey and Matt, creators of South Park, saved Casa Bonita out of bankruptcy. Fun fact. They went to Heritage High School in Littleton around the same time Ryan was at Arapahoe High School in Littleton. 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (1)
Casa Bonita, Denver, Colorado, June 2024

The entire “saving of this landmark” was a big deal in Colorado. They did some renovations (I’ve heard 40 million), and soft opened in June 2023. It still seems to be in a soft opening stage, but I am getting ahead of myself. 

As we waited in line near the fountain, my three companions were giddy with excitement. Okay, maybe not giddy, but excited. I was amused. 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (100)
Casa Bonita, Denver, Colorado, June 2024

As we entered the hallowed space, the familiar scent of chlorine wafted in the air, although not nearly as strongly as in the past. In 2013, a person could cut the chlorine smell with a knife.

We followed the hostess through a maze of tables, chairs, fake tropical shrubbery, and wound our way upwards. I was totally lost. She pointed out the museum area and suggested other things we could do at Casa Bonita. After a small hike, we sat at a table next to the face-painting pavilion, with only a slightly hindered view of the divers. All in all, it could have been much worse. 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (102)
Shiny, happy, people at Casa Bonita.

This walk and subsequent explorations of the facility proved that only about half of the tables are full. This means that the place felt a lot less busy than previous times I’d been here. This is also why it feels that, even after a year, they are in a soft opening phase.

We ordered a round of Casa Lager ($7) made by Ratio Brewing, a solid Mexican-style craft beer. The entrance fee, which we paid in full when we booked the reservation, only covers soft drinks, your meal and sopapillas. Beer and cocktails are extra. 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (food pic)
Carnita tacos and Casa Lager by Ratio Brewing Co.

We were there on a Sunday, the only day they provide table service. Otherwise, you get up and go to a window for your food. Our meals came nearly immediately after we ordered. A step above what it used to be, Ryan went with his standby of enchiladas. He says it used to come with an orange substance poured on top, but now has real human-grade cheese. 

My carnitas tacos were fine. Mechelle ordered the brisket; tasty although it should come with a tortilla to make a delicious taco of the moist meat. I can’t recall what Caleb had but food isn’t the point at Casa Bonita unless we’re talking about the sopapillas. 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (7)
This guy was playing Spanish guitar. It was good but I miss mariachi bands, which I assume play on other days.

While I should be slightly ashamed of this I am not— we ordered three baskets of sopapillas and ate every last one, like we were 10-year-old boys. Casa Bonita’s sopapillia game is on point, as it should be. By the way, they come drizzled in honey instead of with a bottle of honey. Your hands will get sticky, you have been warned.  Everyone in our little group agreed that these are top-notch sopapillas. 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (9)
The divers at Casa Bonita.

After our meal, we got a beer at the bar (yes, there’s a bar), and watched the divers for a bit. Then, we explored with many exclamations from our group that the place seems much like they remember, but cleaner.  

We were followed by the gorilla/bear thing for a while. I think he had a crush on Mechelle.

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (11)
This gorilla/bear/pig animal would be rather terrifying if it weren’t so weird. Sorry, about the slightly blurry shot. It’s a dark area.

Black Bart’s Cave seems brighter, and probably because we are, sadly, a very litigious people in 2024. I admit there were some scary, unexpected sounds, but also, I’m a scaredycat. 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (10)
We weren’t able to take photos during the show, but here’s a pic of the Casa Bonita theater.

I enjoyed the magic show. No one from our group remembers the theater, but there’s a nice jewel theater up a random hallway. We missed the puppet show but did some shopping at the gift store, and took pictures with Cartman. 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (6)
Me and Cartman at Casa Bonita. We sort of look related in this picture. It’s the very round heads.

The Casa Bonita arcade is nostalgic for Ryan. He preferred his family to sit at a nearby dining table when he was a kid. The area was almost empty when we were there.  I highly recommend a walk through the museum, which tells the story of Casa Bonita from its opening in 1974 through today. 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (15)
You must visit the Casa Bonita Museum.

Now indulge my musing for a moment. A few things occurred to me after our visit. Since it’s not full and still under a strict reservation system, it doesn‘t feel busy. Maybe that’s because it was a Sunday, I’m not sure. Perhaps they seat all the tables on days when they don’t have table service. I’ll have to ask one of those people who have gone three times already (they must have a lot of friends and family).

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (14)
I really like Cozumel so I had to take a photo with this poster.

On our visit, the average diner was GenX, in fact, my generation outnumbered the rest by a lot. There were only a few children. Now, for the biggest question. How can this model be sustained? At $50 per person plus drinks and games, it’s not a cheap outing and we don’t need to do it for another decade. 

Sounds of Centerra – LOGO

In this world of screens, AI, and instant gratification, will divers, puppets, and magic tricks keep them coming? Right now—and let’s not kid ourselves—Casa Bonita depends on nostalgia to keep the divers employed. Will the few children I saw there want to bring their children one day? Our niece, for instance, is now 19. Will she return with her future children because we took her once at age 8?

While Ryan thinks these questions are blasphemous, I wonder. 

Casa Bonita Nostalgia Satisfied, But Can it Survive. HeidiTown (17)
After Casa Bonita, we grabbed a beer at WestFax Brewery next door, where a paint and sip was happening.

Can Casa Bonita survive longterm? Even if it’s cleaner and has better food? A curious question.

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