In the past weeks since news broke that tropical rock crooner crooner Jimmy Buffett went on to the great Margaritaville in the sky, you’ve probably heard his songs more than usual. The performer’s hit songs “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “Changes in Latitude” inspired not just a new genre of music, but an entire beach-y lifestyle. And while he might be gone now, his legacy remains strong.
Buffett’s biggest hit — “Margaritaville” — is an apt song for Austin fans. After all, the tune was at least partially written in the Texas city. And the lore of how the song came to be is looms nearly as large as Buffett himself.
When Buffett played Austin for the last time in 2021 at the Moody Center, he referred to the “Margaritaville” origin story before he played the song. He shared how he wrote it at a “little tequila bar” here in town. I’ve long wondered where exactly that was, and what happened to the bar. Buffett seemed to identify the bar in an interview with Texas Monthly in 2020 during his memorialization of his good friend Jerry Jeff Walker:
“I came to Austin a lot in those days. I made it there by getting these college bookings and getting on Willie’s second Fourth of July picnic. I played Castle Creek many times. I think it was after one of those shows, the next morning I had a hangover and I had to fly home that afternoon. I went to El Rey, a Mexican restaurant on Anderson Lane for lunch. I had a margarita, which helped with the hangover, and in the car on the way to the airport the chorus of a new song started to come to me. I wrote a little more on the plane and finished the rest of “Margaritaville” back in Key West.”
That should be the end of the story but it’s not.
Let the record show that Buffett was known for stretching the truth when recounting his misadventures, which is part of why it’s so hard to piece together which restaurant Buffett actually drank that margarita at. For example, according to music writer Ryan White’s book A Good Life All The Way, Buffett wrote the unreleased 1974 song “Reservation at Preservation Hall” after stumbling into the iconic New Orleans venue and noticed that it had been turned into an art gallery. Decades later, he realized he’d likely stumbled into another venue and confused it with Preservation Hall. Sometimes, even first-person sources can’t be trusted when the information comes from people who love to tell a good story.
At first, I couldn’t find a restaurant with the name El Rey mentioned anywhere near Anderson Lane in the 1970s. The more broadly accepted story of the “Margaritaville” lyrics origin story among fans and historians is that the restaurant was actually Lung’s Cocina del Sur, a beloved Mexican restaurant in the Village Shopping Center on West Anderson.
The owners of the business, the Lung family, were actually one of the first Chinese families to immigrate to Austin and make their mark as business owners. Joe Lung immigrated to Texas for work in 1876. While most of the Chinese immigrants who moved to Texas for work eventually left the state, Lung and his brother remained. So he got into the restaurant business. They opened Joe’s Cafe in 1899, which flourished, serving affordable food (and free egg rolls) to local farmers and ranchers. After Lung’s death in 1926, his son continued in the restaurant business, opening Lung’s Chinese in 1945 and Lung’s Cocina del Sur in 1974, according to the City of Austin — just three years before “Margaritaville” was released.
Lung’s was, indeed, located on 2700 Anderson Lane, currently where bowling alley High 5, sits. High 5 owner Scott Emley set the record straight in a 2022 article on the business’s website. He wrote that Jimmie Lung, Joe’s grandson, acquired Austin’s first-ever frozen margarita machine (an ad boasts “Austin’s first & finest frozen margaritas”) a few years after the frozen concoction was invented just up the road in Dallas. Timing-wise, this works for the lyrics of the song. The restaurant closed in the 1990s, but the bowling alley remains.
What happened after Buffett drank the margarita is also widely debated. Some say he started writing the song “on the back porch of a duplex” off of Far West Boulevard, where Parrotheads left salt shakers and bottles of beer after news of his death broke. In 2018, Buffett told the New York Post that the woman he’d enjoyed those margaritas with drove him to the airport and he started writing the song at the gate. “I was going to call it ‘Wasting Away Again in Austin, Texasville,’” he says in that interview.
According to White’s book, Buffett said on stage in 2015 that he spent three minutes writing the song in Austin and another three minutes on the Seven Mile Bridge in Key West while an accident stopped traffic. But the story changed nearly every time he told it. “Six minutes is the low end of Buffett’s estimates of how long it took to write ‘Margaritaville.’ Usually it’s in the neighborhood of fifteen, never more than twenty,” White writes in a footnote.
It doesn’t really matter where Buffett wrote the song. Margaritaville is a state of mind, after all. Buffett says it himself on his live album You Had To Be There: “It can be wherever you want it to be, baby.”