Pickets and protests are more American than mom's apple pie, baseball, and Mexican restaurants combined. They allow us to use free speech to shape society.
That's why demonstrators spent Saturday supporting Lakewood's 52,000-square-foot Casa Bonita. They showed up to peacefully display their support for saving the 52,000-square-foot Mexican-themed restaurant so iconic the city of Lakewood preserved it as a historic landmark — a strange move for property embedded in a suburban strip mall.
"Save Casa Bonita!" said demonstrators and passersby who honked and shouted support. Known for cliff divers, Black Bart's haunted Cave, a festival atmosphere, and faux cavernous eating nooks, Casa Bonita closed like most other restaurants to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. The bankrupt owners want to re-open, but the long-term future remains in limbo.
Founded in Oklahoma City in 1968, the Colorado location remains the only survivor of what became a small chain in the 1970s. It is a rare remnant of the days when dining out was considerably more fun.
The restaurant's cult-like distinction transformed into international curiosity and low-level fame after Comedy Central's Colorado-based Southpark featured it as an obsession so intense star character Eric Cartman would kill for another visit. The restaurant subsequently dedicated a booth to Cartman that became an attraction within the attraction.
Coloradans understand Cartman, as there is a bit of this fat third-grade vulgarian in all of us (don't argue, it's true), so the episode became among the more famous of the decades-running series. If Cartman needs Casa Bonita, so do we all.
Save Casa Bonita supporters organized, formed an LLC, and are halfway to a $100,000 fundraising goal to help the Arizona-based owners get back on their feet after more than a year of no sales.
For Coloradans and fortunate visitors, Casa Bonita provides childhood memories that last a lifetime. In one sense, it was just another low-priced Mexican restaurant serving standard-fare enchiladas, fajitas, margaritas, and its famous sopapillas. Yet, it was also the only place one could experience a mariachi serenade while watching a staged gunfight, a magician, and other entertainers while skilled divers performed maneuvers above a scenic lagoon.
"I was 11 and my family waited hours in line on opening day," said Mary, a Save Casa Bonita fan. "When we finally made it inside, it was the most magical and enchanting thing I had ever seen. I have traveled the world since then and dined in every type of restaurant. In a kitschy way, this remains among the most spectacular things I have seen. Where else can you dine in the presence of so much unpretentious fun?"
Casa Bonita also gave longtime Coloradans something to agree upon, Democrats and Republicans alike. The socially acceptable cocktail-party review goes exactly like this: "Fun place, you should see it, but the food is awful! We go because the kids like it."
Don't believe this nonsense. Adults had a blast at Casa Bonita, where you could "Peso Little, Getso Much." It has become a de facto obligation to tell tales about Casa Bonita (the diver did three flips in the air) while simultaneously trashing the food.
As in most things, the truth lies in between. For those who love what tastes like creamy government cheese over mildly spiced meat, the food was excellent. Many regulars secretly agree, but they know admitting as much would project a lack of culinary sophistication in a state replete with foodies and high-end dining options that come and go more frequently than Colorado rainstorms.
Wherever one stands on the controversial Casa Bonita fare, Consumers should save this landmark if it reopens. It is the last of a bygone niche of restaurants designed to entertain average families with wow-factor fun. Long gone is Denver's Organ Grinder Pizza, which amazed patrons with a massive, multi-story pipe organ that took the concept of a one-man band to the limits of a child's imagination. Everyone who experienced The Grinder misses the friendly monkey.
Long gone is Denver's Baby Doe's Matchless Mine, where customers entered through a mineshaft into a Victorian mansion-like atmosphere full of Colorado memorabilia. The post-COVID future of Fargo's, an Old West entertainment-intensive pizzeria in Colorado Springs, remains undetermined. Long gone is The Yum Yum Tree, where families enjoyed food from any or all of eight kitchens under one roof featuring cuisine from around the world. Colorado has great steaks but lacks the two Trail Dust Steakhouse locations in which diners traveled by slide onto a country music dance floor.
As foodie culture goes increasingly mainstream, consumers enjoy a proliferation of good restaurants. Indeed, the quality of food is what matters most. Yet, as shown by demonstrators Saturday, the market also craves fun-first dining for adults and children in what should remain a family-friendly state. If Casa Bonita reopens — wish upon a star this happens — bring the family, spread the good word, and, as always, be extra certain to enjoy the food while preparing to gripe about it. We can't retain the real Colorado any other way.