A 30-Foot Cliff Makes This Eatery A Different Kind Of Dive Bar

The Denver restaurant Casa Bonita entertains eaters with cliff divers who plunge down a 30-foot waterfall inside the dining room. Those cliff divers usually come from the local college's diving team.

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Just outside Denver, tucked into a rundown strip mall, there's a place known as the Disneyland of Mexican restaurants. Casa Bonita is famous - not for the food, but for the divers. Every night, they leap from a 30-foot cliff inside the restaurant. So we had to include it in our series about odd jobs. Our guide is Ben Markus of Colorado Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIACHI BAND)

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing in Spanish).

BEN MARKUS, BYLINE: Casa Bonita is a spectacle of a restaurant. There's the live Mariachi band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIACHI BAND)

MARKUS: There are the staged gunfights. There are pirates and the strong smell of chlorine. That's because of the giant rock cliff and waterfall where guys like Ethan Larson make their living.

ETHAN LARSON: I have yet to have a day where I do not want to go into work.

MARKUS: Larson is a cliff diver at the restaurant. A couple of times a week, this 21-year-old drives down from college at the University of Colorado Boulder to put on a show.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIVING PERFORMANCE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are you all ready to see this dive?

(CHEERING)

MARKUS: A crowd is gathered around the manufactured rock cliff where Larson is attempting the difficult javelin dive. He lifts a female performer onto his back, muscles twitching as he inches to the edge. The two dive together, separating in mid-air before they pierce the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARKUS: Larson was on the dive team all through high school, dove his freshman year in college. But that was a little too serious, so he quit the team and came to Casa Bonita.

LARSON: If your toes aren't pointed, it's not the end of the world like in competition diving. All they see is someone doing something cool.

MARKUS: The hardest transition from competition diving is not using a diving board.

LARSON: I haven't quite got the platform twist takeoff yet. So I just do fronts, backs, reverses and stuff like that.

MARKUS: Larson's boss Rob Hall says diving ability is only one part of what they're looking for.

ROB HALL: We feel it's like casting a movie, you know? You want to, you know, put someone up there that's got the physique and the face and can project their voice well and, you know, hold a crowd and that's not - you know, not shy up there.

BARBRA BRIZZI: Yeah.

PAT TAYLOR: Yeah.

BRIZZI: He was very good-looking and talented - eye candy and talent.

MARKUS: Barbra Brizzi and her sister, Pat Taylor, drove nearly an hour on a recent Friday night to check out the hunky divers in their board shorts.

BRIZZI: We may be old, but we're still kicking.

TAYLOR: (Laughing) But we're not dead.

MARKUS: Larson is diplomatic when I asked him if diving here has helped him with the ladies.

LARSON: You know, I have a girlfriend. So if I didn't - if she's listening, it doesn't get me any play. But if I didn't have a girlfriend, I'm sure I could use it to my advantage.

MARKUS: It's easy to see why people gravitate to the divers. On this night, the crowd is in awe as Larson effortlessly scales the rock wall like a monkey. At the edge of the cliff, Larson does a handstand before flipping into the grotto below...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARKUS: Where elementary school student Jon Hodges from North Platte, Nebraska was standing a little too close.

JON HODGES: Yeah. We just kind of got soaked, but that was all. But he did some really cool flips and all. I really liked it.

MARKUS: Hodges says this reminds him of the divers at the Olympics. And he adds, there's no way that he could do that. Cliff diver Ethan Larson says he had a similar feeling when he used to come to Casa Bonita as a kid.

LARSON: I remember watching the cliff divers and thinking, man, that's awesome - never once had a thought that that could be me. But here I am, some odd years later, and I'm the one that kids are watching. And, I mean, they're what makes it fun.

MARKUS: Cliff diving, of course, is a young man's game. But he clearly hasn't decided on a career yet. Larson is studying sociology, communications, leadership and business.

LARSON: What I want to do I have no idea. I always have cliff diving here at Casa Bonita to fall back on. So I'm just taking it one class at a time. And, I mean, in the end, the goal is to make a lot of money, right?

MARKUS: The cliff diving, though, doesn't pay all that well. So this summer, he's also training to be a waiter at the restaurant. For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Denver.

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