My rating is for adults. Kids, especially younger kids, might rate it higher.
Casa Bonita began back in the early 70s as Denver’s first “themed” restaurant developed around the idea of creating a Mexican village where people could eat, be entertained, and “sight see” just as if they were in another country. In fact, I can remember our entire High School Spanish department loading all the school’s students of Spanish into school busses for a field trip to have lunch at the restaurant shortly after it first opened for business. There was a lot of excitement surrounding the opening and the new restaurant did not disappoint. In the beginning, it really conveyed the feel of another culture and offered a unique, special, dining experience.
Outside, the building looks like a huge, old Spanish Mission, complete with the statue of an Aztec-looking warrior atop a once gold dome. Visitors walk through wood and iron doors, and down hallways of white stucco made to resemble adobe as if they were traveling through some unknown Latin village. With seating for over 1,000, the restaurant is divided into a number of different, themed sections located around an open villa with a central waterfall. Some people would probably pay admission just to look around, and that is exactly what is required. No one older than age two is admitted without buying a meal. In a cross between an amusement park and a cafeteria, diners pick up trays and follow a conveyor system that ends in the middle of a plaza where they wait to be seated. It truly is a mini vacation and a sensory experience but after visitors see it once or twice, there really is not much to keep them coming back. In fact, many of the derogatory comments about the restaurant, its value and its food directly relate to this fact.
Back in the beginning, the food was comparable to other Mexican restaurants, came in a nice presentation, and they even used real cheese. That changed when Casa Bonita realized the novelty of their restaurant would wear off eventually and they would have to change. They knew they needed to adjust their entire business plan to succeed and decided to focus more on entertaining the kids than attracting their parents. Once you understand this, the rest makes a lot of business sense.
They herd people cafeteria-style, single-file through lines and direct every movement. There is solid reasoning for this. Not only does it better control large numbers, but, for the kids, it is just like being in school, just like what they face every day, and just like what they are used to doing day in and day out. Kids feel comfortable in what they understand. Since you and I may not especially enjoy that kind of treatment, Casa Bonita provides the sensory stimulation that entertains your children and helps ensure they beg you to bring them back to the skits, the puppet shows, the music and that restaurant “playhouse” that is so much fun for them. Even the food is geared toward the developing, young taste buds of children. After all, who but a child would think that a variant form of Cheez Whiz would be nice not only in the enchilada, but generally gooped all around it on the plate as well? In a sense, Casa Bonita is not quite Eltich’s, but still a step above Chuck E. Cheese with food something like “Elf” would appreciate. Casa Bonita is a place where kids can dine out with their parents, eat food geared more toward their juvenile tastes and not have to act like adults the entire evening. It is a good marketing concept especially since it does not entirely exclude adults. Casa Bonita offers a variety of alcoholic beverages served in a comfortable environment to help anesthetize you while your children play.
It is true that most people would not pay Casa Bonita prices for a similar product anywhere else, but part of the price is for the entertainment, for the unique environment and for the babysitting of your kids. When you consider what it costs just to get into Elitch’s and how much more you might pay for games at Chuck E. Cheese, Casa Bonita begins to look like a better value. Sure, it would be nice if they had upscale Mexican food, but that is not likely to happen. They will always make more money catering to your kids than they will catering to you. If you want better Mexican food, go somewhere else. If you want to make your kids smile, let them play at Casa Bonita while you nurse a liter of Margaritas. Remember, Casa Bonita is for kids. The margaritas are for you.