On March 25, 1974, Bill Waugh opened the doors to Denver’s fabled Casa Bonita for the first time. Waugh, a serial entrepreneur who already owned several Casa Bonita restaurants, had no idea that his Lakewood location would become a beloved icon known for its unique atmosphere and consistently mediocre cuisine.
Casa Bonita has survived barrages of bad food reviews, bankruptcy, and even a few stitches to the head, but now, nearly 50 years later, is getting ready for its rebirth. Saved from the clutches of restaurant oblivion by local-boys-made-good Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Casa Bonita has recently undergone a $40 million renovation. Parker and Stone's goal was retaining all of the Casa Bonita charm, while leveling up the food, when they reopened the place earlier this summer.
Parker and Trey are Casa Bonita’s latest owners, but the true vision for the restaurant belongs to Waugh. Originally from Norman, Oklahoma, Waugh’s family settled in Colorado Springs, where he graduated from Colorado Springs High School in 1953 and later earned a fine arts degree from Abilene Christian University.
His background in fine arts was part of what allowed Waugh to see a Mexican village and waterfall in a building that once housed a Joslin’s Department Store and the Jewish Consumptives' Relief Society (JCRS). By the time Waugh arrived in Colorado, he’d already launched the Casa Bonita concept in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. But why did the Denver location thrive while the others flopped? Denver was the only one that had a diving pool.
According to Denver Post reporter Jay Grelen, the pool was a eureka moment Waugh experienced after seeing a small pool that had been dug in the restaurant. He immediately flashed on the idea of Acapulco cliff divers, had the workers dig a much deeper pool than was originally planned, and turned his vision into reality.
From its first day, Casa Bonita wowed locals with its enchanting atmosphere, but saw less enthusiastic words about its unique menu from local reviewers. In a review written just two weeks after Casa Bonita opened its doors, Denver Post food critic Barry Morrison summed up the next few decades of Casa Bonita commentary in a review titled, “Casa Bonita’s Forte is Definitely Atmosphere.”
Morrison raved about the building’s interior saying, “The order line appears to be in a street with decorated walls and gardens. A 30-foot waterfall overlooks the interior, which seats (can you believe this?) 1,000 persons.”
So what did Morrison think of those famous sopapillas and enchiladas? “If you don’t care for Mexican food, the restaurant also offers fried chicken, fried steak or fish. The Casa Bonita doesn’t serve liquor or beer,” was all he the food commentary he could offer.
A few weeks later the Post offered another tepid review in an advertising supplement article titled, Patrons Discover Casa Bonita Experience, saying, “The most basic necessity, of course, is good food. While the menu seems limited there is actually a good selection…”
Like Morrison, the article's author positively gushes about the Casa’s “incredible” atmosphere and its low, low prices.
It’s hard to picture how out-of-the-box the Casa Bonita concept and presentation was, even in the far out 1970s. In October 1976, a group of restaurant owners from the Japanese Chain Food Service Association toured the restaurant as part of a visit to Colorado and Wyoming. From the moment they walked through the door, these seasoned food industry managers were blown away. “They just couldn’t conceive of how a place that had such a small front could have such a large interior,” their guide told the Denver Post.
After eating dinner and enjoying the divers and entertainers, the restaurant delegation couldn't believe that the spectacle had not been staged specifically for their benefit.
But out in the public, the food reviews were more visceral, and on July 2, 1974, the Denver Post ran the kind of headline no restaurant owner wants to see, Casa Bonita Food Rumor Laid to Rest, which opened with a line that some customers may yet still question, “A Jefferson County Health Department official has laid to rest rumors about a Lakewood Mexican foods restaurant concerning the quality of its food.”
Almost immediately after Casa Bonita opened, the Jefferson County Health Department was flooded with complaints about the “legitimacy” of its meat vendors. Inspectors nixed the notion saying, “We checked on several occasions, after getting many calls, and the meat is all from legitimate meat companies. …We have no reason to believe there’s any malpractice there.”
Despite its reputation for bad food, Casa Bonita employees defended their kitchen and were proud of the food they produced. In 1988, General Manager Marty White said the real problem was “psychological” because the kitchen produced so much food in such a short amount of time. “People ask ‘How can it be authentic when you’re producing it that fast?’” He went on to point out that the restaurant made its own tortillas and steamed 200 pounds of beans for eight hours every day. “There’s not a microwave in site,” he added.
White’s job as the manager of Casa Bonita was certainly one of the most thankless restaurant jobs in all of Denver. Not only did he have to deal with food complaints, he also had to manage a revolving door of high school-age employees. Working at Casa Bonita was a rite of passage that many Denver-area youth experienced, though usually only for a brief period. That’s evidenced by the near daily help wanted ads Casa Bonita ran in the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News for several decades straight.
Of course one job that Casa Bonita’s never had trouble filling was also its most elite; cliff diver. A long line of mostly high school and college-age divers have climbed the waterfall to dive from its 13-, 16-, and 30-foot platforms into 14 feet of water. The job paid a bit more than kitchen jobs, but involved an element of risk that the dishwasher wasn’t exposed to. Over the years, multiple divers were injured on the job.
Diver Daniel Jolivette described those dangers in 1999 saying, “Usually we send about two people a year to the hospital for stitches.”
But not everyone was happy with Casa Bonita’s policy of hiring mostly student-age divers. In October 2020, former Acapulco World Cliff Diving Champion Samuel Hernandez sued Casa Bonita for age discrimination after being turned down for a diver job. Hiring Manager Rob Hall allegedly told Hernandez, “You are too old, and I can’t understand why you want to be employed by Casa Bonita.”
Hernandez’s lawsuit could hardly have come at a worse time for the then-beleaguered restaurant. In April 2020, employee paychecks started bouncing, and Casa Bonita shut its doors.
By April 2021, Casa Bonita’s corporate owner, filed for bankruptcy and Denver faced the discomforting thought of losing Casa Bonita. That’s when Parker and Stone stepped in to save the day. Locals are optimistic that the Jeffco-raised pair will preserve all the magic of the original restaurant — just with edible food.
The newly remodeled Casa Bonita is now open for business.
Casa Bonita fills the bill for tourists, Denver Post, August 29, 1988, 3B
Casa Bonita’s Forte is Definitely Atmosphere, April 5, 1974, Denver Post
Patrons Discover Casa Bonita Experience, Denver Post, May 22, 1975, pg 210
Casa Bonita Food Rumors Laid to Rest, Denver Post, July 2, 1974, pg 24
Eatery Workers Diver into Their Jobs, Denver Post, September 14, 1999, page B-02
Great article, Brian! Really enjoyed reading it.
Thank you, Cori!