“We were full at lunchtime today. People heard we’re closing, and they want to stop in for a last meal,” says Steve Gavas, looking around the Parthenon with satisfaction. At 2:30 there was still a lively crowd of late lunchers. As soon as the liquor license transfer is complete, Ann Arbor will lose its only downtown full-service Greek restaurant, and the Parthenon will begin its transition to the new Cafe Habana. In early February, Gavas said he expected the transfer to take about six months, and “we’re about two months into it now.”
Since 1975, the Parthenon has presided over the corner of Liberty and Main in the epicenter of downtown. Steve and John Gavas moved here from Chicago, where they’d worked in restaurants for eight years after emigrating from Greece in their teens. They had been looking around for a place to start their own restaurant, and Steve says, “We kinda like Ann Arbor, you know. And Detroit had enough Greek restaurants.” Though downtown Ann Arbor has had other Greek restaurants–Gavas ticks off several: the Atheneum on Washington, Pelagos in the underground space on Detroit Street, a short-lived restaurant that replaced the Rubaiyat on the corner of Huron and First–this was the one that lasted. Some customers will remember the Parthenon for moussaka, some for flaming cheese, some for a long-ago Friday special of chicken baked with lemon, garlic, and potatoes (a dish no longer on the menu), but Gavas says the Parthenon is most famous for gyros. “Nobody can make the gyros like we do here. We make it ourselves,” threading beef and lamb on a spindle rather than buying prepackaged logs of mystery meat.
The Parthenon went through two milestones in its thirty-seven-year history. It started as a cafeteria, but “in eighty-three we got our liquor license and started having the table service. Then in ninety-four we remodeled and put the windows in and extended the menu again. We couldn’t just keep to Greek food. Our customers wanted some variety–chicken dishes, pasta dishes, fajitas.”
Now in their sixties, the Gavas brothers are ready to retire. Asked where he likes to eat in Detroit’s Greektown, Steve recommends Pegasus: “I don’t even know the owner, but I just like their food the best.”
“I let Detroit Edison in to do a meter reading, and things just didn’t look quite right. There were crusted-over food remains, the liquor was gone, garbage lying around. We said ‘Whoa, we’ve got a concern here,'” says Ed Shaffran, landlord of the Champion House, the Japanese restaurant on East Liberty whose owners skipped town sometime in January owing Shaffran a few months rent. “We have not located them. We’ve gone through every phone number and email address, sent out all kinds of notices” trying to locate Hai Pham, the former Dearborn Benihana chef who bought the place in 2007, and his partner Hao Nguyen. Back rent, Shaffran says, is not their only problem: the IRS is looking for them, and city records show they haven’t paid their taxes since they took over. (Shaffran pays the property tax on the building, but business owners are taxed separately on their equipment and furnishings.)
“We’ve had tenants that we’ve agreed for them to vacate the premises but never had anyone literally leave in the middle of the night,” marvels Shaffran, who owns a number of historic downtown buildings besides the Pretzel Bell Building, where the Champion House opened twenty years and several owners ago as conjoined Chinese and Japanese dining rooms.
Shaffran doesn’t have much to say about the big picture, or lack of one, shaping up on Liberty. Champion House is within sight of two other businesses that announced closings this month: the Parthenon (see above) and Organic Bliss (see below). Up on the State Street end of Liberty, several other businesses have fallen in the last year, most notably Borders.
To Shaffran, this doesn’t form any kind of pattern. “Businesses come and go. It’s attrition. It’s like people–they’re born, they die. The Parthenon was open for almost forty years. Those guys are just ready to retire.” And he points out that the Champion House, though it changed hands several times, had a respectable run of twenty years. As for Organic Bliss, “Never went in the place. I’m not sure what they sold.”
Organic Bliss sold organic clothing, cosmetics, and skin care products. Owner Melissa Bryant was out of town in early February and didn’t return calls. Her assistant, who was tidying the shop after it closed for the last time in late January, declined to speak on the record, except to say that Bryant will keep her online store, organicblissproducts.com.
Bryant moved to the spot across the street from Champion House in 2009 hoping for more foot traffic–she had started out in the basement shops under Afternoon Delight the year before. But foot traffic is a relative term: Alex Gulko, who had the spot before Bryant, left it for Main Street, citing lack of foot traffic as a problem.