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Wasting Away Again in Margaritaville

Jimmy Buffett's themed eatery in the Horseshoe Casino meets banal expectations of a high-cost, low quality chain restaurant model

By Maija Zummo · March 13th, 2013 · Cover Story
saltshaker
According to the annals of Jimmy Buffett fandom’s salty-rimmed history, Cincinnati — or “Fincinnati,” depending on which way your lei leans — is the birthplace of the phrase “Parrothead.” In 1985, a Coral Reefer Band bassist remarked that the chillaxed, tropically costumed masses filling the TimberWolf amphitheater were in fact “not Deadheads” (obviously), but “Parrotheads” (presumably because they were wearing hats with parrots on them). The name stuck.

Cincinnati has also gone down as the place where that “asshole music writer who hates Jimmy Buffett” lives because, in May of 2000, CityBeat Music Editor Mike Breen published a list titled: “Ten Things I Hate About Buffett.” Parrotheads do not take kindly to people insulting El Capitan. A Buffett fanpage published Breen’s name, email address and home address (albeit the wrong one), which garnered a plethora of interesting hate mail including: “I hope your children are raped by drug dealers in Over-the-Rhine and get AIDS and die.”

Needless to say, we at CityBeat have had a jocular, contentious relationship with Buffett — the man, the myth and the entire unwindulaxing Margaritaville™ industry (but not tequila) — ever since, so the opportunity to check out his restaurant at the Horseshoe Casino was too salacious to pass up. 

And although we all love a good, campy spot to pig out and do some day-drinking, we decided to be brutally honest (we doubt our opinion will make a dent in Buffett’s popularity, his brand of island escapism or the sales of a Buffett-themed restaurant in a Buffett-loving town):  The food was boring and the margaritas, made at a restaurant named after the “frozen concoction,” were not helping anyone “hang on.” 

Plus, the joke was really on us: A margarita-phile, a vegetarian and a meat-eater walk into an island-themed bar … and spend $83 on lunch.

Entering Margaritaville from the casino is a bit jarring. As one of only three restaurants in the Horseshoe with a street-level façade, it’s one of the few places in the perpetually-10 p.m. building that lets in natural light. Luckily, Margaritaville provides helpful tropical context clues for disoriented gambling patrons: faded Hawaiian shirts, bleached wood bars, palm trees, a mural of the Great Lakes … 

One of the most popular items on the Margaritaville menu — a menu which you can purchase for $3 at the Margaritaville shop next door — are the Volcano Nachos, a mound of tortilla chips covered in chili, “cheese,” guacamole, sour cream, jalapenos, tomatoes and scallions, for $14.99.

Admittedly, this monstrosity is what we came for.

“A number of my family members travel to Las Vegas often and love visiting the city’s Margaritaville location,” Jac Kern, CityBeat day-drinker, says. “One family friend requires the restaurant as her first stop so she can order the epic cheesy mountain of chips that are the Volcano Nachos.”

We ordered our nachos sans chili to accommodate our two vegetarian diners. 

“Maybe that was a missing link,” Jac says. “The nachos looked great coming out — piled at least a foot high. … But as we made our way to the belly of the beast, we were all disappointed to find the ‘real’ cheese was only melted on top and the rest of the chips were doused in an oily ‘nacho cheese’ sauce.”

While we ate, the fake cheese dried on the chips to a hard sheen.

Next came Margaritaville’s namesake and supposed specialty: margaritas. Jac ordered the “Sunset Cruise,” made with blood orange and grapefruit; Hannah McCartney — who loves margaritas to the point of excruciating and rapid brain freeze — ordered a frozen “Who’s to Blame;” and I got the “Perfect Margarita” on the rocks.

“There are nine margarita varietals all dubbed with chintzy names, supposedly to make the experience of drinking feel more exotic and exciting, not as if you’re surrounded by plastic parrot paraphernalia and TVs blaring music videos from a Jimmy Buffett Pandora station,” says Hannah, who commented, over the sound of a Nickelback featuring Santana video, that the most exciting part of her drink was the red umbrella garnish. 

Our server kindly warned us the drinks were strong (probably because we were drinking at noon during a workday), but none of us tasted any tequila, which was unfortunate because all of the tequila used to make the margaritas at the restaurant is Buffett’s own Margaritaville brand, and we were interested in tasting that. Jac and I both agreed the simple syrup and sour mix were too strong, and Hannah says the flavor of her margarita reminded her of “a lime-flavored Warhead after you suck off most of the sour coating.” If I go back, I’ll try the “Booze in the Blender” and walk away with a nice souvenir blender cup to accompany my acid reflux.

Next, we ordered lunch, which ended up being more or less what you would expect from a chain restaurant. 

Jac ordered the fish tacos, with filling that rotates based on market availability. That day it was two small, market-priced Mahi Mahi tacos with nicely heated seasoning, cabbage, salsa and rice and beans. Hannah got the Caribbean Chicken Salad sans chicken with mangoes and jalapeno-mango ranch dressing. (Tip: Order your dressing on the side.) And I ordered the veggie burger, which combined edamame with peas, corn, broccoli, celery, carrots and peppers. It was handmade, which I applaud, because plenty of restaurants won’t even bother with that, but it looked unappetizing; it’s hard to form those patties. Note: The menu denotes all vegetarian items or items that can be made vegetarian with a tiny palm tree, which is very nice. 

While each of us picked at our entrees, we mused about the empty stage located to our left. Despite the fact it was empty, the stage seemed of interest to some patrons, who were snapping phone photos of it. Who will play the Margaritaville stage? Who has played there? Does Buffett christen every Margaritaville location with a live concert? Have his blessed feet touched that sun-bleached wood? Or can we look forward to evenings with Buffett cover bands? Karaoke?

And while the food was so-so, the service was excellent. Our wait was less than quoted, we were greeted by a number of friendly hosts and our server Mitchell was knowledgeable, attentive and enthusiastic. Our food and drinks also came out very quickly during a busy lunch rush.

Jac’s final word? “Of the various food options in the casino, this appears to be the best option for folks who aren’t in the high-roller room. However, the prices aren’t that affordable and when you factor in the low quality of food, it kind of feels like they’re dealing a bad hand to visitors on a budget. If Jimmy Buffett is looking for a lost shaker of salt, he should probably check out this newest Margaritaville location — most of the food lacked freshness and flavor but had an overwhelming amount of sodium. If [he] loves Fincinnati so much, he should focus on serving up decent food at reasonable prices, not a salt lick for $19.99.” ©

 
 
 
 

 

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