Casita Del Campo opened on the Silver Lake side of Hyperion Avenue in 1962 by a dancer and actor, Rudy Del Campo, who was looking for a second career. The restaurant was painted with every color of the rainbow and filled with various objets d'art and statues. The menu was a collection of Tex-Mex–inspired combo platters; the bar was stocked with tequila and tropical fruit juices. Nothing really has changed about Casita since then, and that is why it is so beloved.
Del Campo died a number of years ago, but his widow, Nina, and their children have kept true to his vision, adding only more tea lights and tile-top tables and rainbow flags to the mix. The family has also, in a quiet way, kept up Rudy's role as unofficial patrons of the arts.
According to the family, Casita was overrun by jazz musicians from the moment it opened its doors. It's always been an artists colony, though at some point musicians were replaced by actors and drag performers. The Del Campos don't have much involvement beyond providing the basement theater, which is exactly what a creative wants from a benefactor.
"Calling it the Celebrity Theatre was such a tongue-in-cheek name. It was just to take the piss out of Hollywood, have a space for queer stuff that didn't need to be polished, didn't need to be perfect. I think that's been the aesthetic from day one," says Drew Droege, an actor and frequent Casita performer.
That whimsical attitude makes an appearance upstairs, too, where the menu is full of crowd-pleasers like nachos and quesadillas. This kitchen isn't trying to win any awards. It knows what the regulars want. Tortillas, sour cream, guacamole and cheese are the four main food groups at Casita Del Campo. Which is perfect, because the fifth food group is blended margaritas.
Sure, you can get a classic margarita on the rocks here, but you'll have more fun with a fruit flavor, especially the limited-edition guava, which is seasonal and made only from produce grown in Nina Del Campo's backyard. It is perfectly tart and sweet, making it both a perfect appetizer and dessert. (There is a large valet-only parking lot at Casita Del Campo, but if you're having even one cocktail you should really take Lyft or Uber.)
There are some menu highlights worth knowing about: the Casita's Special is six open-face taquitos, perhaps L.A.'s purest expression of comfort food. Chile en nogada, a pepper stuffed with meat, fruit and nuts, is worth trying when it's on the menu. "I like the ice-cold green salads, and the amazing albondigas soup," says Sam Pancake, a regular Casita performer. "And I love the cilantro chicken, which I learned about from Drew Droege."
Pancake remembers first performing at Casita in 2005, as a backup dancer in a Julie Brown show. And, once a performer has met with the approval of the theater's booker, known as Mr. Dan, he becomes a sort of lifetime member, with full benefits.
"Mr. Dan is very selective," Pancake says. "But once you're in.... It's a really good deal to do your shows here. The rent is affordable, and people can come before the show and have a drink, and hang out afterward, take pictures. ... There's Fernando at the bar, the valet is the best in the city."
That community spirit is fostered in part by Nina Del Campo, who is often in the restaurant, though she takes a quiet role and doesn't interfere in goings-on. "This is an artistic landmine the family is sitting on. And they don’t meddle, it’s great, they stay out of the way," Droege says. "But the lady owner did bring the grandkids to Golden Girlz Live! It was family-friendly."
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SHOW ME HOW
Newbies to Casita Del Campo should do like the regulars do: Head over for dinner and, if there's a show on, buy a ticket, grab a margarita in a theater-friendly plastic cup and go downstairs for some theatrical entertainment. If you're still hungry afterward, grab some nachos at the bar.
"At Casita, people eat upstairs, and they just drink their faces off. People for some reason get drunker and wilder in that basement ... there's just a spirit down there," Droege says. "It just feels like you can do no wrong, and you're completely embraced."
1920 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake. (323) 662-4255, casitadelcampo.net.