A Cavernous Cantina Returns to Denver, Cliff Divers and All

Colorado’s defining features include glorious mountain peaks, vivid seasonal colors, skiing and a widespread compulsion to exercise and eat well. But for generations of Colorado children, arguably the most commonly shared experience involved Casa Bonita, a vast, filthy, poorly-lit, underground restaurant with food that many diners deemed barely edible.

Casa Bonita — sprawling over 52,000 square feet in Lakewood, a Denver suburb — served steamed refried beans, tacos and enchiladas to thousands of people a day, buffet-style. The dinner entertainment was a child’s fever dream: waterfalls, cliff divers, Black Bart’s Cave, faux gold and silver mines, puppet shows and a person in a gorilla costume chased by a sheriff, who sometimes joined in the cliff diving. Casa Bonita’s curious childhood grip was chronicled in an episode of “South Park.”

After that episode ran, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the show’s creators, were regularly asked whether such a place actually existed. “Oh, that’s a place,” Mr. Parker would respond, he said recently. “It’s crazy. It’s weird.” Like so many Colorado children, Mr. Parker had held his birthday parties there.

Then, in 2020, Casa Bonita went bankrupt, hit by the pandemic slump. The place was already in disrepair, crumbling from deferred maintenance, rife with electrical hazards, the ventilation systems coated with grease and the carpet encrusted into something like concrete. The jokes about the food had earned it the nickname Casa NoEata. Still, its passing was mourned.