My First Visit to Margaritaville Was Jimmy Buffett’s Wake
After the beachcombing bard died Friday, we took a pilgrimage to the Mall of America restaurant chain bearing his name.
8:40 AM CDT on September 5, 2023
Ever wake up crabby to the bone and a smidge ragged, only to be greeted by an obituary for Jimmy Buffett, songbird of paradise? Well folks, all roads on such a day lead directly to Margaritaville.
It’s not like I’m some huge Parrot Head, though my childhood neighbors bestowed unto me a tilted respect for their kind at an early age. A corner of my little freak heart was warmed by this couple, who anytime Jimmy Buffett and his Coral Reefers Band came within spitting distance would plant some fake palm trees and rickety lawn chairs atop their petite pickup’s bed, which had been filled to the brim with playground sand.
Whereas such lowbrow nonsense was received with eye rolls from most “adults” living on our street, I loved that entire months would pass before the beach in their daily driver was dealt with. They’d built a fun little world, Jimmy and those neighbors.
Those formative memories only bubbled up later, though.
I’m embarrassed to admit that what hit me first upon hearing of Jimmy’s death was a maudlin thought that arrived fully formed: So many flags are at half staff in the Conch Republic. The image overwhelmed me with sadness well beyond reason.
Nourished by the roguish spirit of that archipelago, impossibly dangling out there in the middle of the ocean, Jimmy long ago joined the Keys’ pantheon of poets, old sailors with skin like elephant leather, and sundry dream chasers. How could such a precarious place endure losing its patron saint?
I took for granted the low hum of peace born of knowing that Jimmy Buffett, delivered unto us Christmas Day in 1946 like a heralded Salt Life Savior, was somewhere roaming the earth—or maybe the seas, or piloting his planes—squeezing good times from the bad, fawning over manatees, and generally making life feel less dire. Buffett fashioned such a robust and enduring ethos of joy within this rotting world that it simply wasn’t possible for everything to be awful.
And so, fueled by inexplicable irritability, a shared tenderness, and Jimmy Buffett radio on repeat in the midst of an absurdly hot afternoon at our unairconditioned job, my friend/coworker and I fell into a delusional mourning spiral.
At its dark center, we needed to know: Would Margaritaville, the 23-location chain restaurant founded and inspired by Buffett, be a standing room only wake that night? Might the general manager switch to an all-instrumental soundtrack to mark the loss of Jimmy’s voice? Or perhaps his jams would be chopped and screwed to add a woozy, drunken gravitas to the affair? What if they put out a Mourning Buffet for Buffett?
We would know no rest until we found answers.
Online reservations suggested that Margaritaville at the Mall of America was booked solid into Sunday. Though we were willing to wait, we really wanted a reservation for the wake. Calls placed at 5 o’clock went unanswered, as the staff was surely observing a moment of silence during a Parrot Head’s most sacred hour.
After several tries, we secured a table for 8 p.m.
Upon arrival, the line to speak with Margaritaville’s host was significant, though it paled in comparison to the stacks of dirty glassware piling up at the bar. Margaritaville’s ponytailed executive chef wandered in bewildered loops from the Tiki Dining Room to the Patio of Indecision. He spoke to no one.
Since neither of us had ever been to a Margaritaville before, not only were we unprepared to be greeted by an enormous blender, we also had no way of knowing if the unsteady atmosphere was in any way related to the day’s grim tidings.
Before you call us funereal bandwagoners, Jimmy himself famously said, “If there’s a heaven for me, I’m sure it has a beach attached.” Being very far from any beach Buffett would have recognized, we figured the nearest substitute to waving to him from the opposite shore entailed a pilgrimage to his restaurant perched four stories above a mall aquarium.
While walking to our table, myriad televisions burst into a Jimmy’s cover of “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and I almost lost it. Oddly poetic, too, was the nearest neon sign: Instead of “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar,” it read “Clock Ere Bar.” It had clearly (shhh, leave me this) been half-extinguished in the man’s honor.
Once we’d settled in, we realized that we’d come in search of a wake, but found instead a… festive purgatory? Margaritaville’s vibes were so congenial that we couldn’t be sure how many guests in the room knew that these recorded performances are all that remains of Jimmy. Or maybe everyone was holding it together really, really well.
Each of the three employees to whom I offered condolences didn’t seem to give a combined single shit about the man’s passing. To be fair, they were having a rougher go of it than us, in a way only the service industry can provide. The bartender was drowning. Our server was coping pretty well, though by their estimate, Day One of the PJB (Post Jimmy Buffett) era had been two- to three-times busier than your average Saturday.
Over a dessert of strangely shiny yet totally perfect key lime pie, a server speedwalked past us to a newly seated booth and loud-whispered “FUCK” just out of their earshot (but not ours).
Cruel fate for the same man who sang, “I'm getting paid by the hour and older by the minute/My boss just pushed me over the limit” to push his staff beyond their limits as a parting gift.
We’d ordered an actual Cheeseburger in Paradise more in tribute than out of hunger, the quality of which was overshadowed by Margaritaville’s truly untouchable coconut shrimp. Every single ounce of Margaritaville’s signature margaritas—delivered in personal-size blenders, naturally—proved healing.
Dropping our check, our server said that he’d had guests in tears earlier. Batting at the emotional cobwebs, he playfully mentioned how “Jimmy never came here,” and he has half a mind to start a GoFundMe for all of his coworkers to (heavy air quotes) “go to his funeral” in exchange for enduring the day’s gauntlet. We looked for his campaign the next day but couldn’t find it.
According to a statement released by Margaritaville Corp., Jimmy’s idea for the chain was to “expand the opportunity for as many people to experience the lifestyle immortalized in his iconic song as possible.” By distilling something so broad as a lifestyle into a physical place, the MOA location ended up morphing into a full-on liminal space upon his death. Margaritaville was made for this moment.
“We celebrate his life, believe his spirit lives on like a never-ending encore,” they wrote.
They got that right. Even now, inside the northernmost outpost of his laid back empire, Jimmy struts barefoot across a stage, beaming that sun-bright smile. Who’s to say he can’t see you smiling back?
Find him forever amidst a stand of fake palms, next to the Crayola Experience.
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