You wanna come on down to where, exactly? If the answer is “unincorporated Park County, Colorado,” an hour or two outside of Denver, great news: Two guys from around there have been making a TV show about it for 26 years and counting.
Relatedly: Casa Bonita is back, sort of. For now, it’s in a limited soft-open period that offers tickets (not reservations) through an email list, via the website. People, especially Denverites and media outlets, seem to be very excited about it, despite (or perhaps because of) every aspect of the ongoing saga of this restaurant’s reopening having been over-the-top and parodical, not unlike that show I just mentioned.
For those just tuning in, Denver’s Casa Bonita is “the Disneyland of Mexican restaurants,” a childhood treasure adored for its entertainment novelties (cliff divers, a cave to wander around in) and less so its abysmal food. Formerly part of a small chain and having been passed around in ownership for decades, Casa Bonita was, like many restaurants, threatened with permanent closure earlier in the COVID pandemic.
In summer 2021, however, help arrived when Trey Parker and Matt Stone bought the restaurant. Their garishly animated reactionary sitcom farce South Park has been, at various points over its long run, racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, classist, glib about addiction, dismissive of climate change, deeply centrist, and kinda funny. The show was also recently selected by Farhad Manjoo, in a 17-part New York Times opinion section survey, as the “one piece of culture that best captures the country.” So even if you don’t think it’s very good, in any sense, there’s at least a compelling argument that it’s relevant.
Anyway, one Season 7 episode is about how desperate a character is to go to Casa Bonita. This created some national awareness of what had formerly been a Colorado curiosity. So when Parker and Stone bought the restaurant, the general reaction was basically, sure, makes sense. In a way, the purchase was a joke (cartoon guys buy restaurant?) about a joke they made (“Casa Bonita,” South Park Season 7, Episode 11) about a restaurant that is, honestly, kind of itself a joke (in that it is fun because it is ludicrous). In a South Park-typical gesture, every twist in this story enhances the absurdity of the ones before it, even if Parker and Stone are sincere about it.
The fervor spurred by the drawn-out and arguably chaotic reopening makes the absurdity clear. In May, Parker and Stone started a publicity blitz of interviews and previews on the Today show and in the New York Times. That month, without a hard opening date announced, people began traveling to Lakewood, Colorado, just in case maybe when they got there, Casa Bonita would be open. (It wasn’t.) Some guy parked himself in front of Casa Bonita over Memorial Day weekend, hoping to be the first person to get in. A planned Facebook event, The Great Wait in Line Event to Eat the First Night at Casa Bonita Opening Night, attracted more than 15,000 responses. The event’s discussion is heavy with meme posts about how long it’s taking to fully reopen the restaurant, mostly from event instigator Jesse Vogel. “It could become this big game show-type thing. ... It could even be turned into a big South Park episode,” he told Denver publication Westword, perhaps understanding the irony that desperation to go to Casa Bonita is already the topic of the South Park episode that made non-Coloradans aware this place even existed, a kind of theater of the ridiculous spilling out into real life.
Aside from nostalgia and the sheen of a pair of Gen X investors who lost an Oscar to Phil Collins, it’s not clear what people expect to find when they get to Casa Bonita. The major points of interest are a new menu from James Beard-nominated chef Dana Rodriguez, new bars, an expanded waiting area, and some “narrative polish” so that the attractions “make actual sense.” Otherwise, much of the restoration work has focused on structural or sanitation fixes, with the oft-stated goal being to leave Casa Bonita largely as it was in the fond memories of Coloradans, but improved. For example, it took 27 tries to match the original pink exterior paint job. Beyond that, a main takeaway from the recent press around Casa Bonita has been how much money Parker and Stone have spent on renovating and reopening the restaurant, because they just want it to be really, really good. Per the Times, the price tag has run over $40 million, an amount that’s so absurd to spend on a roadside attraction that it’s essentially a joke.
Which leads me to the lingering question in all of this, two years in: Why would two guys who are probably already nearly billionaires spend this kind of money in a notoriously unforgiving industry they have no experience in? Surely not just for funsies?
I previously theorized that maybe this investment was an attempt to grow the South Park IP in an era where franchises are expected to be bankable in perpetuity. While only a little South Park theming has been reported at Casa Bonita so far, owning experiential products still broadens their footprint overall. (They profess, as native Coloradans, to just really love this restaurant, and have figured into its marketing post-purchase.) An online merch store is selling Casa Bonita dishware, salsa, and a replica of the tabletop flag diners raise to indicate they’d like a serving of sopapillas ($19.95, shipping not included). Parker and Stone can also bank on making $39.99 per adult and $24.99 per kid, which includes food.
Much of that will, of course, go to the costs of running a restaurant. Management announced in June that servers and bartenders would be paid $30 an hour and tipping eliminated, a fraught model that’s nevertheless often seen as corrective to the racist and inequitable practice of gratuity. More recently, the Denver Post reported that staff has presented Parker and Stone with demands to revert to a $14.27 hourly wage with tips, along with health care and better communication. According to the Post, the staff claims that Casa Bonita’s extended preview period hasn’t left them with enough scheduled time to earn a living wage even at $30 an hour, and there is no clear plan for a full reopening.
If it manages to ever fully open, Casa Bonita would theoretically be part of a portfolio that includes a $500 million cartoon that produces roughly two hours of new content per year, a $900 million streaming deal, and a $750 million Broadway show that continues to make about a million dollars each week. (That’s just on Broadway; it’s also established in other cities.) If you’re adding this all up, odds are good that Book of Mormon ticket sales alone would recoup the cost of buying and reopening Casa Bonita within a year. Parker and Stone may not, strictly speaking, need to make their $40 million back. (It’s also possible that losing money on it could benefit them, taxwise.) That said, accounting on this scale is vastly more complex than that, even leaving aside that the details of the Casa Bonita ownership stake are unknown to me.
On South Park this past season, its 26th, a March episode featured two fourth graders, Cartman and Kenny, buying and remodeling a hot dog stand Cartman and his mother had been living in, based on the actual Coney Island Boardwalk in Bailey, Colorado, which Stone and Parker considered buying last summer. A third kid named Butters had financed the operation, and he grew increasingly angry as Cartman and Kenny screwed around, growing DikinBaus Hot Dogs into an elaborate amusements wonderland. (The stand’s name sounds like a toddler saying “dick and balls,” a well this show loves to drink from.) When DikinBaus turned out to be a success, Butters sold it, leaving Cartman and Kenny ejected from the hot dog stand business.
There was speculation that this episode was Stone and Parker processing their experience pouring money into Casa Bonita. If so, it’s hard to neatly map real life onto the show: Would they be Cartman and Kenny, with dreams of childish grandeur but zero work ethic? Or were they Butters, financing the whole thing, and laboring desperately to stay afloat? Reading South Park as parable can be tricky, but if Stone and Parker eventually end up selling Casa Bonita for more than $40 million, well, there it was.
And yet, ultimately, these dudes basically do whatever they feel like — who knows what the end game is for them here? Their signature show continues to be laced with a libertarian ethos, preaching that great ideas left alone to flourish simply manage to succeed on merit. It’s probably too much to hope that they’re dumping tens of millions of dollars into Casa Bonita or paying $30 an hour for sheer altruism. If so, they’re probably the only libertarians to really mean it; that would be the biggest shock South Park has managed to pull off in 20 years, further extending the joke.