There was a line at the door of Donita’s Cantina by early Sunday morning — and by late afternoon, people were crowding the block for their last chance to get what many considered the best margaritas in town before the business officially closed its doors after operating on Elk Avenue for 40 years.
Sunday was the longstanding Crested Butte Mexican restaurant’s last day in business.
“We’re the crazy people that were sitting outside at 8 a.m.,” laughed Susan Sweetra.
Sweetra and her crew, otherwise known as the “God Squad,” have been coming to Donita’s every Thursday for Margarita Night for as long as she can remember.
“Their food is good, but the people are special,” said Sweetra.
For Sweetra and her husband, Donita’s held a special place in their hearts. It was the personal touch to service that kept them coming back — especially as Sweetra’s husband had dietary needs amid on-going health problems.
“This was my husband’s absolute favorite restaurant, and we ate here a lot the last year and a half of his life,” added Sweetra.
During each visit, owners Kay Peterson Cook and Heli Mae Peterson went out of their way to provide special orders that fit his needs, said Sweetra of her late husband.
“They’ll go out of their way to help anybody,” added Kathy Taylor, another “God Squad” member who came to say a final farewell.
While the margaritas and stacked blue tortilla specials were a mainstay, the primary reason people kept coming back was that the restaurant simply felt like home.
“This place is one of the last bastions of the hippies who came to Crested Butte,” said Jeffrey Taylor.
But the cultural hub for the hippies in town was also affordable and family-friendly, even as the notorious $4 pitcher nights got so crazy that the cops got involved.
That’s according to Sherrie Vandervoort, whose mother Kathleen Ross worked alongside Gary and Donita Reitze (for whom the restaurant got its name) during the original incantation of the eatery more than 40 years ago at the Elk Mountain House.
“We would find pitchers littered throughout town on Monday,” laughed Vandervoort.
That is until one day, when the police came to Donita’s with the intent to put an end to margarita night altogether. To which Vandervoort’s mom sighed with relief — “thank you!”
One of Vandervoort’s fondest memories at the restaurant was when musician Jimmy Buffet came to town one fateful day while she was attending Western State College.
“There was one day I could not get a ride to Duane Vandenbusche’s class and I was hitchhiking and it was really cold and I thought I’ll just go to my mom’s restaurant,” explained Vandervoort.
Upon arriving, she found her mother making a deal with local resident Lou Costello — who had a proposition for Ross.
“I don’t like propositions,” recalled Vandervoort of her mom’s response. Of course, the proposition was to have Jimmy Buffet in for lunch.
Vandervoort, just 23 years old at the time, was over the moon at the idea — and also happy to miss class if she could work the gig.
“I was kicking her, saying — ‘We do lunch!’” said Vandervoort. “So I went home, put on a red skirt, and we did lunch.”
Just that once, however. Since that time, it was dinner only. But for longtime locals and tourists, the restaurant remained a routine dinner pick.
“It’s been like a landmark,” said regular Lynne Muirhead. “We’re so sad to see it go.”
More often than not, the term family-friendly is two-fold. The environment is welcoming for all ages, but children also have grown up in Donita’s over the years.
“Our kids are grown now, and we brought them here when they were little,” said Muirhead.
Part-time resident Julie Crabtree had been coming to Donita’s since she first stepped foot in Crested Butte in 1980.
‘When I was in college, it opened up and our family vacationed here and we had a lot of family dinners here so I’m kind of freaking out about it,” laughed Crabtree.
She and her husband, Don Horvath, joke that they should get Kay and Heli’s autograph before they ride into the sunset.
“They’re definitely the best margaritas in town — I’m gonna miss that,” added Crabtree.
For Horvath, Donita’s brings back memories of meeting his wife’s family for the very first time. Sitting by the fireplace, he was surrounded by aunts, uncles and even grandparents while enjoying the Mexican fare.
“I had to run the gauntlet that night,” said Horvath with a smile.
Of course, Crabtree and her husband have been coming back ever since — a story that rang true for many. Come once, and you’re hooked.
There was no better evidence of that than on Sunday — or even last few weeks prior to closing, when Cook and Peterson were flooded with love from the community in the form of Facebook posts and a continuous stream of tears, hugs and heartfelt farewells.
“It’s like a big family,” added Jeffrey Taylor. “That’ll never change.”
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)