Unlikely: Meeting in a CU Boulder film class and creating a cartoon about foul-mouthed children that would turn Trey Parker (DistSt’18) and Matt Stone (FilmSt, Math’93) into household names.
Unlikelier: Taking that South Park money and dumping it into a bright pink, 49-year-old Lakewood strip mall restaurant, thus adding “restaurateurs” to Parker and Stone’s already lengthy resumes.
But that’s what the duo did in the summer of 2021, when they bought Casa Bonita for $3.1 million and proceeded to pour $40 million into renovating the iconic Mexican restaurant.
If the words “Casa Bonita” conjure up images of cliff divers and sopaipilla flags, then you either a) grew up in Colorado celebrating birthday parties in Black Bart’s Cave, or b) watched Cartman frolic through the “Disneyland of Mexican restaurants” in an uber-popular 2003 South Park episode.
But if you’re a Casa Bonita noob and wondering why cliff divers are involved and who Black Bart is, just know that this is not your run-of-the-mill restaurant. Casa Bonita is a special place, one where cliff divers plunge off a 30-foot waterfall; where, inexplicably, someone runs around the 56,000-square-foot behemoth of a restaurant in a gorilla suit; and where, yes, sopaipillas are summoned by flags at each table.
It all started in Oklahoma City in 1968, where Casa Bonita’s kitschy “eatertainment” model was so popular with families hungry for a kid-friendly restaurant that outposts popped up in other states, including in Colorado in 1974. While its sister restaurants shuttered over the decades, the Lakewood Casa Bonita remained the last standing… barely.
Long the butt of a running joke about nearly inedible food — not to mention tucked away in a suburban West Colfax strip mall — Casa Bonita wasn’t exactly thriving going into the COVID-19 pandemic. With diners reluctant or unable to visit restaurants in person, Casa Bonita’s woes mounted. In April 2021, longtime owner Summit Family Restaurants filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
What happened next was what Coloradans and South Park fans hoped for, but what seemed too preposterous — that someone, in this case Parker and Stone, would swoop in and save the gloriously campy Casa Bonita, preserving it for generations to come.
“Only people as rich and silly as Trey and I would do this,” Stone said in an interview with Denver’s 5280 magazine published in July. “This is definitely an indulgence. We want to do it for the state of Colorado. The businesspeople would say ‘no’ to something like this — and they did.”
When the sale became official in summer 2021, Parker and Stone promised to “change nothing and improve everything.” But would they Hollywood it out? Would they price out the neighborhood and families that kept the restaurant afloat for so long? Would they finally do something about the food? Would they destroy Black Bart’s Cave?!
It took two years, but in June we finally got our answers. That’s when Casa Bonita reopened to the public. Kind of.
To score the toughest reservation in town, you have to sign up for the restaurant’s email list, where they randomly selected lucky diners to come in for the soft opening. (As of press time, this is still the only way to get into Casa Bonita.) While the prolonged soft opening has annoyed some, it makes sense. This is a restaurant that can seat 700 people at a time, after all, so going from zero to 700, especially for first-time restaurant owners, is a challenge.
As people have trickled in, though, the verdict on the Parker and Stone-owned Casa Bonita 2.0 has become clear to restaurant reviewers, food influencers and the public — the beloved Mexican restaurant is the same, only better.
“This is definitely an indulgence. We want to do it for the state of Colorado. The businesspeople would say ‘no’ to something like this — and they did.”
The plunge pool is pristine (and safer, thanks to removing ledges that divers previously had to skillfully avoid), the furniture isn’t caked with years of sopaipilla crumbs and Black Bart’s Cave doesn’t smell. The whole place looks and feels exactly the same — just shinier and cleaner.
One thing that isn’t the same: the food. Parker and Stone knew that this was the one area that really did need to change, so they wisely tapped James Beard award-nominated chef Dana Rodriguez to helm the kitchen. Interestingly, Rodriguez applied to Casa Bonita when she moved to Denver from Mexico City in 1998. They never got back to her.
Now the kitchen staff cooks everything from scratch in the rebuilt kitchen, from tortillas for enchiladas to slow-simmered pork for carnitas tacos. The food is good, meaning no more jokes about eating before heading to Casa Bonita.
It’s all very unlikely — that Casa Bonita could exist for nearly five decades, that two hometown boys-gone-Hollywood would come back to sink their fortunes into it, and that these two CU Boulder film students would hit it big in the first place with swearing cartoon kids. But that’s the kind of restaurant Casa Bonita is, and the kind of guys Parker and Stone are.
Maybe it’s not so unlikely of a coupling after all.