Have you ever had a particular craving you couldn’t satisfy because the restaurant has long been out of business? Maybe you’re dying for the herb-roasted prime rib from Steak and Ale? Or maybe some classic fried chicken from Minnie Pearl’s? Or maybe you’ve got a sweet tooth that can only be satisfied with one of HoJo’s 28 flavors of ice cream?
Restaurant chains are a huge part of American culture, but not every restaurant chain is successful. While some withstand the test of time, others reach great heights only to fail miserably. These defunct restaurant chains once thrived, but are now history.
Do you remember Sambo’s?
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During the 1970s, you were just as likely to see a Howard Johnson’s on the highway as you were a McDonald’s. Founded by Howard Deering Johnson, the popular dining establishment grew to more than 1,000 locations. HoJo was so popular at one point in the ’60s that a new restaurant opened every nine days!
The large menu consisted of fried clams, butter-grilled “frankforts,” and 28 ice cream flavors. What set Howard Johnson’s apart was how seriously Johnson took food quality. He spent around 48 percent of his gross revenue on food (compare this to today’s gold standard, Chipotle, who spends 35 percent). It was truly a place where a middle-class family could stop in for a satisfying yet affordable meal. Unfortunately, the restaurant’s reputation faltered in the ’70s. The quality of food went by the wayside, and the brand became known for its bland food.
Minnie Pearl’s Chicken
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In the late 1960s, businessman John Jay Hooker and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson teamed up with country singer Minnie Pearl to open Minnie Pearl’s Chicken. Soon, they became a cautionary tale for restaurant franchise owners.
Minnie Pearl’s Chicken opened with the intention to compete with Kentucky Fried Chicken, and for a while, they did. The chain was successful when they began and quickly grew from one location to more than 500. Unfortunately, the venture collapsed thanks to allegations of accounting irregularities and stock price manipulation coupled with lackluster food.
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The first Sambo’s opened in 1957 by Sam Battistone and Newell F. Bohnet. From the get-go, the restaurant chain made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The name, which the owners claimed was simply a combination of their names, rather than a derogatory term for African Americans, didn’t sit right with the public. Sambo’s was also filled with questionable decor, including the racist caricature Li’l Black Sambo. Still, Sambo’s grew, and at its height had around 1,117 locations in 47 states.
On top of the negativity associated with the brand, a handful of bad corporate-level decisions led to the chain’s demise. Sambo’s filed for bankruptcy and began closing stores in the early ’80s.
Up next: the burger chain that Fast Times at Ridgemont High put on the map.
The All-American Burger
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The All-American Burger was made popular when one of the locations was featured in the ’80s cult classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But while the chain was popular in Southern California, it never reached the regional level.
The last location on the west coast closed its doors in 2010. If you really need your All-American Burger fix, you can trek over to Massapequa, Long Island where the only remaining location lives. The restaurant still uses the same name and logo and burger recipes from the ’60s!
You remember White Castle, but do you remember White Tower?
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The first White Castle location opened its door in 1921. The burger joint saw immediate success which brought on a slew of imitators. One of those imitators was White Tower.
White Tower was opened by John E. Saxe and his son, Thomas. The duo shamelessly copied White’s Castles menu, style, and advertising. They even went as far to copy the architecture of the burger chain. Despite being a blatant knockoff, White Tower saw success and went on to open 230 locations at its peak. It turns out White Castle doesn’t think imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. They brought legal claims against White Tower, forcing them to make significant changes to their business, which ultimately led to their demise.
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In 1975, Marno McDermott and NFL star Max McGee launched the first Chi-Chi’s in Richfield, Minnesota. The chain introduced rudimentary Mexican fare to many American towns, which caused its popularity to soar. But as Mexican restaurants across the U.S. saw a surge in popularity, Chi-Chi’s began to fail.
The franchise managed to stay afloat into the early 2000s. In 2003, a Hepatitis A breakout in the chain’s food supply resulted in the death of three customers. As of 2004, the majority of Chi-Chi’s were closed in the United States and Canada. The last remaining restaurant stayed open in Utah until 2011.
Up next: Lum’s was the place to get a delicious hot dog!
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Clifford and Stuart Pearlman opened the first Lum’s in Florida in 1971, purchasing the hot dog stand for a mere $10,000. The brother’s chain offered “beer-steamed” hot dogs, which were an immediate hit. The chain grew slowly at first, with four locations open in 1961. But in the late ’60s, Lum’s aggressively expanded — at one point, more than 400 locations were open!
In 1971, Lum’s sold to John Y. Brown, the then-chairman of Kentucky Fried Chicken. A few years later, 273 of the locations were purchased by Wienerwald Holdings. The holding company overextended itself and filed for bankruptcy not long after, leading to the ultimate demise of Lum’s. The number of location dwindled, and in 2017, the last Lum’s closed its doors.
Steak and Ale
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The first Steak and Ale opened in Dallas, Texas in 1966 and introduced an entirely new concept of dining to the American marketplace. The eatery offered affordable steak and a salad bar, which was an immediate success since the market was yet to be saturated.
Unfortunately for Steak and Ale, other restaurants copied their model and did it better. Soon, Steak and Ale were left behind, and the final location closed in 2010. This might not be the last we hear from Steak and Ale though. Following its closure, the parent company of Bennigans purchased the Steak and Ale name. The new owners are hoping to set the standard for affordable steakhouses.
Bob’s Big Boy
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Bob Wian founded Bob’s Big Boy in 1936, originally dubbing it Bob’s Pantry. Wian got a job at a Los Angeles fast food joint and worked his way up from overnight dishwasher to fry cook to manager. He was interested in learning how restaurants worked and how they could be improved. Three years later, he purchased a ten-stool hamburger stand which would become Bob’s Big Boy. The chain’s double-decker burgers were a huge hit, and the iconic mascot was a sight for sore eyes for travelers on American highways.
Bob’s Big Boy saw success through the ’80s, and at its height had more than 130 locations. Over the next decade, however, sales declined, and the locations slowly dwindled. While Bob’s Big Boy isn’t totally defunct, there are only five locations still today.
Valle’s Steak House
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Valle’s Steak House was an East Coast chain of restaurants that operated from 1933 to 2000. Known for its menu of steak and lobster, the small family-run business expanded aggressively during the 1970s.
Unfortunately, Valle’s encountered numerous factors that led to its demise. In 1977, Donald Valle passed away, leaving the Valle family with an estate tax bill they couldn’t pay. This, coupled with declining sales, led Richard and Judith Valle to sell their shares in the business. Before his death, Donald Valle had tried to emphasize food over liquor, even though alcohol is more profitable thanks to higher markups. In the end, it was this obsolete business model that sealed the steakhouse’s fate.
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The fast-food chain Gino’s Hamburgers opened its doors in 1957. Gino Marchetti and Alan Ameche of the Baltimore Colts opened the first location with their close friend Louis Fischer.
Gino’s Hamburgers saw success over the next decade and decided to expand in the early ’70s. The company attempted to take the expansion to the Midwest, but these locations only operated for a short time. After a few less-than-successful years, Gino’s Hamburgers was acquired by Marriott Corporation in 1982. Marriott decided to discontinue the brand, and soon enough, Gino’s Hamburgers became Roy Rogers. The last location closed in 1986, however, in 2010, the chain was revived as Gino’s Burgers and Chicken. Today there are two locations of the revived chain open, but you’ll have to trek to Maryland to get your fix.
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The first Burger Chef opened in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1954. The American fast-food chain saw immediate success and quickly expanded throughout the United States. At one point in the early ’70s, there were 1,050 locations!
Customers couldn’t get enough of the chain’s signature items like the Big Shef and Super Shef hamburgers. Unfortunately, bad business practices contributed to the chain’s downfall, and Burger Chef sold to Hardee’s in 1981.
Do you remember Mr. Steak?
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Mr. Steak was a popular steakhouse during the ’70s and at its peak had nearly 300 locations in operation throughout the United States. Unfortunately, the chain’s food quality wasn’t up to par with the competition and Mr. Steak’s steak was underwhelming compared to competing chains like Sizzle and Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus.
Mr. Steak filed for bankruptcy in 1987. In a last-ditch effort to save the company, a few of the locations were converted to a new chain called Finley’s. Today, there are five Finley’s still open throughout Michigan, but all of the Mr. Steak locations have been phased out.
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Bennigan’s was a popular Irish pub-themed restaurant. Found in 1976 by Norman E. Brinker, Bennigan’s was best known for being one of the first mid-range casual dining establishments.
Bennigan’s continued to grow throughout the United States and even abroad, opening locations in 14 countries. Unfortunately, the chain’s executive failed to modernize Bennigan’s, and its outdated concept led to a slump in sales. Bennigan’s lagged behind the likes of Chili’s and T.G.I. Friday’s and, in 2006, closed the majority of its locations.
Ponderosa Steakhouse and Bonanza Steakhouse
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If you were a fan of this restaurant chain, don’t worry — there are still 88 Ponderosa Steakhouse and Bonanza Steakhouses in operation today. But throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the steakhouses thrived with more than 600 locations.
The buffet-steakhouse chain opened in 1965 in Plano, Texas. Diners loved the classic American fare which included steak, seafood, and chicken entrees with a buffet of sides. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the chain was sold numerous times, and eventually, its parent company, Metromedia Steakhouses, filed for bankruptcy in 2008. It reemerged the next year as Homestyle Dining LLC.
Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse
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The first Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse opened in 1966 in Warren, New Jersey. The steakhouse became known for its signature dish of prime rib and house salad piled high with egg, shrimp, and Catalina dressing. Soon, Charlie Brown’s gained enough momentum to expand throughout the state and into New York and Pennsylvania.
Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse met a similar fate to other steakhouses like Steak and Ale. They simply couldn’t keep up with the competition. After being sold to Castle Harlan and then acquired by Trimaran Capital Partners, the restaurant filed for bankruptcy in 2010. The shakeup saw the closing of 47 restaurants. In a final attempt to save the chain, a private-equity company in New York bought the remaining 20 locations for $9.5 million in 2011. Today, Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse operates as Charlie Brown’s Fresh Grill.
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Naugles was a Mexican fast-food chain that opened in Riverside, California in 1970. Founded by Del Taco partner Dick Naugle, the chain’s motto was “Prepare food fresh. Serve customer fast. Keep place clean!”
Naugle owned the small chain which had three locations for seven years until selling it to Harold Butler. The chain quickly expanded by a system of non-exclusive franchises. Unfortunately for Butler, this was deemed unlawful by a federal court. Still, Butler was able to expand Naugles to 225 locations before he sold the chain. Naugles merged with Del Taco in 1988, and the locations were phased out. Today, there are just four Naugles that are still open, but the Naugles Taco Sandwich can still be found on Del Taco’s menu!
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Remember Druther’s? How about Burger Queen? Druther’s originally opened as Burger Queen in 1963 until changing its name in 1981. While the name suggested they only served hamburgers, the chain also offered fried chicken and a self-serve salad bar.
The chain grew in popularity and at its peak operated 171 locations through seven states. In 1990, Druther’s International Inc. became Dairy Queen and soon converted most of its locations to DQ.
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Henry’s Hamburgers opened its doors in 1954 in Chicago. Originally the Besler’s Ice Cream Company, the small shop decided to expand into the fast-food drive-in industry.
Henry’s Hamburgers grew to 35 locations by 1956 and did well in the Chicago area. Fast forward to the early ’60s, and Henry’s Hamburgers experienced serious growth. With 200 locations, customers couldn’t get enough of the chain’s 99-cent cheeseburgers with a side of fries and a milkshake. By the mid-’70s however, Henry’s Hamburgers began closing at an alarming rate. While the reason why is still unclear, it is suspected that changes in ownership and mergers played a role. Today, there is one Henry’s Hamburgers location in Michigan.
Kenny Rogers’ Roasters
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In 1990, country singer Kenny Rogers partnered with former KFC CEO John Y. Brown to launch the chicken chain, Kenny Rogers’ Roasters. The restaurant chain served rotisserie-roasted chicken with traditional sides like mac ‘n’ cheese, mashed potatoes, baked beans, and cole slaw.
While the food was popular (an entire Seinfeld episode was dedicated to the eatery), Kenny Rogers’ Roasters was never able to make it alongside the big dogs in fast food. Rogers and Brown sold their business to Nathan’s in 1998, who then sold it to their Asian franchiser. Today, there are no Kenny Rogers’ Roasters in the United States, but the chain continues to flourish in Asia.
Pup ‘N’ Taco
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If you remember Pup ‘N’ Taco, then you must have been around Southern California during the 1970’s. The first Pup ‘N’ Taco opened in Pasadena, California in 1965 and specialized in tacos, tostadas, pastrami sandwiches, fries, and hot dogs. Of course, the best way to wash it all down was with a Pup ‘N’ Taco slush!
By 1973, there were 63 Pup ‘N’ Taco locations. Come 1984, however, Taco Bell bought 99 Pup ‘N’ Taco stores thoughout California for their prime locations. The sale effectively ended the existence of the Pup ‘N’ Taco chain.
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D’lites was clearly ahead of its time. The Georgia-based fast-food chain was known for its emphasis on nutritious meals, offering reduced-calorie dishes. One of their most popular items was a lean beef hamburger made with low-calorie cheese and high-fiber buns.
Dough Sheely and Jeffrey Miller founded the chain in 1978 and by 1985, there were more than 100 locations. The following year, the chain filed for bankruptcy and by 1987, ninety-nine percent of the stores were sold and rebranded as Hardee’s. The closure came as a result of more popular chains starting to offer healthy options.
A&W Drive-Ins were some of the most popular spots to grab a quick bite or even just hang out! A&W was known for its root beer, of course, so the restaurants specialized in root beer floats which paired excellently with one of their burgers.
They were also known for their frosty mugs, which would be kept in the freezer until someone ordered a root beer. The restaurant chain’s peak was in 1974. With a total of 2,400 units, it had more locations than McDonald’s at the time. Since then, many A&W drive-ins have gone away, but that doesn’t mean the chain isn’t still thriving.
Carrols restaurants were another fast-food chain that was popular during the ’60s. It was very popular in New York after Herb Slotnick bought the franchise rights for Carrols in the state. Carrols didn’t last for long, however. By 1975, many of the franchises were converted into Burger Kings.
The brand also owned chains such as Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana. Carrols restaurants is truly another chain that you are unlikely to see again. The brand is discontinued in America, but there is a Finnish brand of unaffiliated Carrols restaurants throughout Europe.
When you were told to “look for the orange circles,” you must have lived in the New York area throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Of course, what was meant by that was that you should head on over to Wetson’s to buy their 10-cent fries and their 15-cent burgers. We bet we weren’t the only ones buying them by the bagful!
But nothing hit the spot better than a Wetson’s Big W! Unfortunately, Wetson’s couldn’t stand up to major competitors McDonald’s and Burger King. In 1975, Wetson’s merged with Nathan’s Famous fast-food and has been discontinued ever since.
Rax Roast Beef
Rax Roast Beef is an Ohio-based fast-food chain that at one point in time could stand up to its largest competitor, Arby’s. They were very popular throughout the ’80s and their addition of a salad bar locked people in for a short time.
But afterward, things got a little too complicated. Many locations started implementing pizza, baked potatoes, “Chinese-style” food, and even a taco bar. By the time they started redesigning their stores to be the “champagne of fast food,” Rax lost many customers. By 1988 they decided to scale back to focus on sandwiches but by then it was too late.
Claudia Sanders, “The Colonel’s Lady”
Claudia Sanders, “The Colonels Lady,” was Colonel Sanders’s wife in the 1960’s. By 1964, Colonel Sanders had made his fried chicken recipe famous and with more than 600 restaurants, sold the chain to a group of investors.
In 1968, Sanders and his wife decided to reopen their original location in Shelbyville, Kentucky as “Claudia Sanders, The Colonel’s Lady,” where they served KFC-style chicken for which they were sued. They reached an agreement to serve the chicken but changed the name to Claudia Sanders Dinner House with a full-service dinner menu.
Red Barn restaurants were where you could find the Big Barney or the Barnbuster, which was their equivalent of the Big Mac and a Quarterpounder respectively. However, the Big Barn predates the Big Mac and Red Barn restaurants were the first fast-food chain to have self-serve salad bars.
Throughout the ’80s, Red Barn restaurants were everywhere. There were over 300 locations in 19 states, as well as Canada and Australia. But many went out of business by the late ’80s as many owners failed to renew their leases. As a result, many stores were converted for other uses.
Pioneer Chicken used to be the spot for some of the best fast-food fried chicken in Southern California. Where else could you find gizzards and livers on the menu? Of course, Pioneer Chicken was known for its bright orange deep fried chicken.
The chain was founded in Los Angeles and named after the Pioneer market, a chain of supermarkets that is also now defunct. At its height during the ’80s, there were over 200 locations and there were even stores open in Hawaii. By the late ’80s, the company went bankrupt and sold the chain. As of 2017, there were only two Pioneer Chickens left in Los Angeles County.
Sandy’s was the Hardee’s of the mid-west before Hardee’s was even a thing. That’s because Sandy’s is an ancestor of the Hardee’s fast-food chain. Sandy’s rose to popularity selling burgers, fries, and milkshakes for just cents and was popular throughout the ’60s.
By the end of the ’60s, Sandy’s merged with Hardee’s because it was strapped for cash. Before it’s merger, people wanted to expand Sandy’s, but it’s original owners refused, much like what happened to McDonald’s. By the early ’70s, many Sandy’s restaurants agreed to convert into Hardee’s restaurants.
If you’ve seen a Weenie Beenie in your lifetime then you probably frequented the Virginia area a lot during the 1950’s. Weenie Beenie restaurants were famous for their half-smokes, hot dogs, and pulled pork sandwiches.
The chain was founded by Carl and Bill Staton in Arlington, Virginia. Bill Staton was a huge billiards player who used the money he made from billiards to fund his restaurants. At its peak, there were a total of six Weenie Beenie restaurants in the world, but today only one is still standing.
Beefsteak Charlie’s had over 60 locations throughout New York in the 1980’s. The original Beefsteak Charlie’s restaurant was opened by Charles W. Chessar in 1910 in New York City, but after a series of ownership changes, it was eventually expanded into a chain by the ’70s.
At its peak, people headed to Beefsteak Charlie’s for their all-you-can-eat salad bar and the unlimited libations on offer. Their commercials featured Beefsteak Charlie and his nephew Beefsteak Chuck. The chain held on into the early 2000’s but as of the present day, the chain is officially defunct.
Official All Star Café
Official All Star Café was a restaurant chain with a sports theme, similar to ESPN Zone. The chain was developed by Planet Hollywood, who got athletes such as Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montant, Shaquille O’Neal, Ken Griffey Jr., and Andre Agassi to invest in the chain.
The chain was popular throughout the ’90s, particularly the locations in New York City, Las Vegas, and Cancun. However, by 1999 Planet Hollywood filed its first bankruptcy. The following year it was bought by Disney who failed to make keep it alive. The very last restaurant at Disney’s Wide World of Sports closed in 2007.
VIP’s was a casual dining establishment equivalent to Denny’s. Based in Oregon, VIP’s restaurant chain was rampant throughout the Pacific Northwest, particularly on freeways. They were open 24 hours and found in Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Northern California.
Popular throughout the ’70s, many VIP’s were bought by other companies. In 1982, for example, 35 VIP’s restaurants were sold to Denny’s Inc. for $12 million. The sale was shocking, but VIP’s owners claimed the “offer was too good to pass up” and promised that VIP’s employees would keep their jobs by being absorbed by Denny’s.
Horn & Hardart
Horn & Hardart was popular in the early 20th century for being one of the few places where food was convenient as serving yourself. This was because Horn & Hardart opened as some of the first food service automats on the East Coast.
What drew people to Horn & Hardart in the first place was their introduction of New Orleans-style coffee, which was just coffee mixed with chicory. The automated service at Horn & Hardart was popular throughout the ’20s and subsequent decades but didn’t last into the ’60s, when fast-food chains became more convenient.
Isaly’s was a popular place to go for a sweet treat or a quick bite if you lived in the Midwest throughout the ’60s. Aside from their scrumptious chipped chopped ham which made them famous, Islay’s is also credited with inventing the Klondike Bar and its popular slogan, “What would you do for a Klondike Bar?”
Islay’s started out when William Islay decided to start selling his own dairy products and offer lunch counter service. By the 1920’s Islay’s restaurants were popping up as far as Pennsylvania, growing from its humble beginnings in Ohio. By the ’60s Islay’s restaurants started fading away.
Schrafft’s restaurants opened up in New York City and were operated by the same people who owned the Scrafft’s food and candy business based in Boston. Scrafft’s restaurants opened up in the nicer parts of town and, as a result, attracted a lot of female customers who were out shopping in the area.
They felt safe there as it was one of the first restaurants to allow unattended women to dine. Scrafft’s restaurants somehow managed to survive the Great Depression, but still, they didn’t survive the ’60s. The company was sold and as a result, Schrafft’s restaurants were never the same.
Wimpy was a fast food chain that got so popular, multiple locations opened around the world. The very first one opened up in Bloomington, Indiana in 1934. The brand was established by Edward Gold, who got the restaurant’s name from J. Wellington Wimpy of the Popeye comics.
By the ’40s there were at least 26 locations in the Chicago area. Eventually, the expanded to the United Kingdom and South Africa, where they still exist today. There are no more Wimpy restaurants in the United States because no one purchased the rights to the name after Edward Gold’s death in the ’70s.
Childs restaurants were some of the most popular eateries during the ’20s and ’30s, with over 125 locations throughout America. It was also the most lucrative restaurant company in the business at the time, serving over 50 million meals a year and making $37 million.
Childs restaurants were pioneers in innovative restaurant design, service, sanitation, and labor relations, which meant it was a decent place to work as well. By the ’40s, however, the company filed for bankruptcy and despite the fact that it had stayed alive through the ’50s, there were pretty no more Childs the following decade.
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Casa Bonita originated in Oklahoma City as a Mexican-themed “eatertainment” restaurant. That’s right, at Casa Bonita, you could be thoroughly entertained while you eat. However, what kept people coming to Casa Bonita was their all-you-can-eat beef and chicken plates, and who could forget those delicious sopapillas?
Throughout the ’70s to the ’90s, it was actually a nice place to eat. But Casa Bonita wasn’t as successful as it set out to be and as of today, there is only one location standing. You can check this place out in Lakewood, Colorado, where Casa Bonita is officially a historical landmark.