Casa Bonita’s relaunch under new ownership won’t necessarily trigger a revival along the West Colfax corridor, but it could speed up one already underway and if done right, provide a model on how to both refresh and preserve an iconic tourist draw.
The Mexican restaurant with real cliff divers, faux shootouts and so-so food has served as a draw for generations of families ever since it opened in 1974 in a shuttered Joslin’s department store in a suburban strip mall sandwiched between Kendall and Pierce streets along West Colfax Avenue.
The restaurant shut its doors early in the pandemic and owner Summit Family Restaurants sought bankruptcy protection in April. But last month Summit finalized a sales agreement with a group headed by Colorado natives and “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
“While retail has had its challenges over the years, the ‘South Park’ creators’ rumored grand vision for Casa Bonita’s future could be a boon for local commercial and residential real estate in the West Colfax area. If anything, Trey and Matt’s purchase may serve as a model for preserving history throughout West Colfax,” said Philip Kranefuss, head of Colorado real estate for the brokerage firm Homie.
Parker and Stone made the restaurant legendary among their global fan base when they featured it in a 2003 episode of their animated series and they have continued to highlight it over the years.
Kranefuss said the restaurant is a Denver-area institution and a rite of passage for local children that could see its draw as a tourist attraction expand to the legions of “South Park” fans. Its preservation and continuation are not only a big deal for the nearby neighborhood but also the larger metro area.
He expects the neighborhood will look much different 10 years from now, and that Casa Bonita will be part of that transformation.
“We are very enthusiastic about what is happening with Casa Bonita. Anything that reactivates the restaurant is a good thing for us,” adds William Marino, board chair of the 40 West Arts District. “Good things are happening on West Colfax. There is real momentum and we need it to continue.”
The arts district, established in 2011, has purchased a building in the parking lot next to Casa Bonita that once housed a Denver Drumstick Restaurant. The once-popular eatery, known for a model train that ran around the restaurant, has sat vacant for about 20 years, a symbol of the larger decline the neighborhood was suffering, Marino said.
One goal of buying the building is to provide permanent gallery space for area artists so they don’t get priced out as the neighborhood stages its comeback, avoiding a pattern seen in some of Denver’s one-time artist havens, Marino said.
Lamar Station Plaza, the strip mall that houses Casa Bonita with its distinctive pink stucco bell tower, saw its revitalization start when Broad Street Realty acquired the dilapidated JCRS shopping center in 2014 for $8 million. In the late 1800s, the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society or JCRS treated tuberculosis patients on that site.
The shopping center, once limping along with a 30% vacancy rate, now houses a Planet Fitness and a Dutch Brothers, but also discount retailers and thrift stores catering to the area population.
“It is really about the redevelopment of commercial spaces. The general idea is to hold onto the funkiness of Colfax and the positive energy that comes with it,” said Robert Smith, Lakewood’s economic development director.
Lakewood has a total of 91 commercial and residential projects recently completed or underway, according to a development map the city maintains. Of that total, 38 were completed last year, 17 wrapped up this year and 15 residential projects and 12 commercial projects are currently underway.
Many of those projects are concentrated in the north end of the city, between the W light rail line and the Colfax corridor, which at one time served as the major connecting throughway for travelers driving between the Midwest and California and was filled with motels and eateries.
Once the wider and faster Interstate 70 to the north became the main highway, Colfax started to see more used car dealerships and pawnshops and vacant buildings.
Part of the challenge of redeveloping the area is that it was designed with setbacks and parking lots to accommodate a car culture. But the preference now is for denser and more walkable neighborhoods with amenities nearby.
“The West Colfax corridor is undergoing a renaissance,” Smith said, adding that the “South Park” purchase, which is awaiting approval in bankruptcy court, has done great things for marketing Casa Bonita. “Part of the value of that restaurant is that it has such a storied history. All parties involved want to maintain that legacy, augment and enhance it.”
But some long-time fans of the restaurant, like Andrew Novik, founder of Save Casa Bonita, which launched an unsuccessful bid to acquire the establishment, worry that its core character could be lost or diluted if too much emphasis is placed on the “South Park” connection.
“‘South Park’ is huge, but if you went there on any given day, it was filled with families and kids having birthday parties in there,” he said. “If you lose that family-friend nature of Casa Bonita, you will lose more than you will gain with ‘South Park’ visitors.”
The restaurant was getting 500,000 visits a year, and he said that very few of the customers were likely there because of the “South Park” connection.
Smith said that many of Lakewood’s newest residents are millennials who have young families or looking to start families. He said the “South Park” team understands and values what made Casa Bonita special and wants to preserve it, even as they refresh the look, improve the quality of the food and bring the menu up to modern standards.
In short, he doesn’t ever see a day coming when a diver in a red Cartman suit is jumping off the cliff.
“Casa Bonita needs that neighborhood and the neighborhood needs Casa Bonita,” he said. Both are changing, but they will change together.