You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 5:15 a.m.

Cafe Habana, Lena to open at new South Main Street location next week

By Lizzy Alfs

The historic Ann Arbor building once occupied by Cunningham’s Drug Store and most recently the Parthenon Restaurant is set to reopen Aug. 30 as two restaurants: Lena and Cafe Habana.

Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell — who combined own a dozen Michigan restaurants — spent four months transforming the 8,000-square-foot, bi-level space at the corner of South Main and East Liberty streets.

The result: A “modern and rustic” feel upstairs and a “unique, cavern-like” feel downstairs, Carlson described.

The landmark building was painted green earlier this summer — a shade Carlson said is similar to Cunningham’s former exterior. The new Lena sign is meant to reflect Cunningham’s block lettering.

But inside, Carlson said, everything is new.

“It’s a historic building, so we remodeled the outside as it was in the 1940s, and inside, we took everything down to the bare bones and inserted modern elements,” he said.

Gary Wilson of Traverse City-based Wilson Construction Co. was the contractor for the project. Ann Arbor-based Curtis Commercial owns the building.

The first-floor Lena — which partially is named after a famous photograph — will serve "modern food of the Americas," influenced by Latin culture and cuisine, Carlson said. It will be open for lunch and dinner.

“We actually worked hard on making (Lena) a lunch spot,” Carlson said. “We have a completely different menu for lunch that focuses on salads and sandwiches…we feel lunch is important in downtown Ann Arbor.”

Cafe Habana, located in the basement, will have its own entrance, menu and feel. It will serve some classic Cuban dishes and Latin street food. It will open daily at 5 p.m. and host live musicians, DJs and salsa nights.


The building once occupied by Cunningham's Drug Store is reopening as Lena and Cafe Habana next week.

Photo from Ann Arbor District Library

“The thing we’re proudest of, I think, will be the sound and visual throughout the entire space. We worked with (Ann Arbor-based) Leon Speakers, and I think we’ll have the best sound system that we’ve attempted.”

Both Lena and Cafe Habana will source locally, prepare specialty cocktails, serve Brazilian Chopp beer, and have “unique” wine lists, Carlson said. Between the two restaurants, there are 270 seats and 95 employees.

The owners also have plans to add patio seating on East Liberty Street, creating room for 80 to 100 outdoor seats. They’re also looking to add a rooftop deck in 2013.

Carlson said the new Cafe Habana is different and “much better” than the original restaurant, which was located on East Washington Street before closing in January to make room for Blue Tractor’s expansion.

“We learned a lot of over there so wanted to do an even better job,” he said. “It’s difficult when you’re trying to do diametrically opposed concepts — Latin and BBQ — in the same space. Here, (the restaurants) are both in the Latin food spectrum.”

Chef Gabriel Vera, formerly with Saltwater in Detroit, is leading culinary at both restaurants.

“We feel like we have just the most amazing, young, talented chef,” Carlson said. “We did a national search and we thought it was important for someone to understand the culture as well as the food.”

He called the restaurants casual upscale — competitive pricewise with other restaurants in the South Main Street area.

Carlson and Lobdell, along with other investors, also own Ann Arbor’s Grizzly Peak and Jolly Pumpkin.

The duo partnered with a handful of people on the Lena/Cafe Habana venture. Among them: Dugan and Katie Fife, Andy and Anna Mignery, Matt and Marjo Grabowski, and Andrew Kilbride and Liz Marek.

Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for Reach her at 734-623-2584 or email her at Follow her on Twitter at


Lorraine Gutierrez

Thu, Aug 30, 2012 : 2:18 a.m.

i have lived here for almost 30 years and don't remember cunningham drugs. when was it there? does anyone remember it?


Wed, Aug 29, 2012 : 11:19 a.m.

I was at the practice opening last night and all I can say is the food was out of this world fantastic. And wait until you see Habana downstairs. It's huge! Beautiful club space that extends underneath the sidewalks on Liberty and Main with semi-private rooms, nooks, and crannies. This will definitely be the new hot spot in Ann Arbor, if not the whole region. Congratulations Jon Carlson and staff for another great addition to our fine city.


Mon, Aug 27, 2012 : 2:09 p.m.

What, no local contractors available to remodel a restaurant on Main Street? Traverse City contractors are brought in instead, despite the massive unemployment here in town among the Building Trades. The Downtown Development Authority wants us to shop locally and support local businesses. The Plumbers UA Week & the Electricians NTI Week pumps millions into the A2 business community & would very much appreciate the retail owners to suppoort the tradesmen as well.

Jon Carlson

Tue, Aug 28, 2012 : 11:38 a.m.

Not true. 90% of our contractors were local and all were Michigan. My home town is Traverse City (originally) and Wilson Construction is our General on everything now. We also, used an electrician, refrigeration and carpenter from Traverse City. The rest were all local. Robertson Morrision, Saladino, Paragon, Leon Speaker, Security Corp, Ann Arbor Fire and Protection, Richard Brothers Painting, New Roof, Marygrove Awnings, Paul Koch Masonry, Iron Creek Contractors, Global Green Services, etc. We love everything Michigan and Local. !!!!


Mon, Aug 27, 2012 : 4:01 p.m.

Not sure if they are a Merit Shop or not, but I suspect they were brought in because they build the Blue Tractor and Cafe Habana in Traverse City plus several other restaurants owned by this company.


Mon, Aug 27, 2012 : 11:35 a.m.

Jon, I walked by last night and looked inside (unlike the posters that only looked at the pics here). Your place looks great. Can't wait to have dinner there next week.


Sun, Aug 26, 2012 : 8:30 p.m.

Love that these people are investing more into downtown. Can't wait to try. Looks super cool


Sat, Aug 25, 2012 : 2:20 p.m.

What does this place have in common with all the others - jolly pumpkin, blue tractor, grizzly peak...mediocre food and good beer. Habana had been on a downward spiral, food only seemed to get worse until it was basically inedible. Used to love eating there, especially that chimichurri, but they even screwed that up. Hopefully Vera can do a better job and this simply isn't a reincarnation or attempt to reinvent themselves. If a "national search" lands the sous chef from a restaurant in Detroit, I'm not optimistic. These guys should spend time in their restaurants instead of opening them and finding management companies to run them. When ownership has very little skin in the game - look at all those partners, it's tough to keep quality at decent levels. I'm also not sure about the decor of this place either. Trying too hard to be trendy. I walked by and saw the white chairs on the inside and actually thought they were rentals for temporary setup. Someone on here said it best; looks like a cafeteria. Might be the worst signage in all of Ann Arbor - nothing close to cunninghams. Between mission management and main street ventures, downtown is cluttered with numerous yet poor food options.

Jon Carlson

Sun, Aug 26, 2012 : 9 p.m.

Holy Grumpy Lindor. Wow. I guess our places aren't for you. I know you are using a fake name but my name is Jon Carlson. I am one of the owners. We have our lives on the line for all of our businesses. We invest a lot of money, time and heart into our restaurants. We care about them and our staff deeply. While I am not the operating partner in the restaurants(I work on the design, build and financing), we do have partners in the restaurants at almost all times. We have amazing staff who care deeply and are extremely talented. Some of my partners have been in the restaurant business for 30 years. Several of our partners do have a professional restaurant management company and I trust my partners to handle that part of the business . This is why you have partners. We have more "skin in the game" on all of our businesses than you will ever know.While I have no problem with people having different opinions on design or on our food and service(hey, we aren't perfect) , I couldn't sit back and read things that aren't true.

Ann English

Sat, Aug 25, 2012 : 12:34 a.m.

Exposed brick wall and exposed stone make me think those areas will be hard to heat in the winter. But in the last photo, I can understand the cement block wall; it's underground, and many houses have basement walls made of cement blocks. I had expected a year to be cited for the old Cunningham's Drugs photo; the Parthenon was at that address in the late 1970s, when I frequently went downtown.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 7:09 p.m.

YAAAAAWWNN! More restaurants. How 'bout a couple nice, smokey, cheapo, dive bars.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 8:43 p.m.

I agree

Taylor Hulyk

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 6:33 p.m.

I would like to get excited, but I can't forgive them for choosing that AWFUL exterior color. It hurts my eyes. At first, everyone in my office thought it was the primer. They couldn't possibly have had a group of people agree on that color, could they?


Sat, Aug 25, 2012 : 11:36 a.m.

The cooler is awesome. you have no taste.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 7:06 p.m.

Back in the Middle Ages, when it was Cunningham's, the entire building, extending half the block west on Liberty, was also that color. You would have really liked that, I bet.

lindsay erin

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 6:08 p.m.

Does anyone else feel that the cafeteria-like feel of the upstairs plus the Cuban-/Latin-inspired food is similar to Frita Batidos?


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 10:13 p.m.

There is nothing cafeteria-style about Lena. Frita is Cuban/Caribbean inspired. Lena is South American inspired. Two different areas of the world and types of food. Chinese food is different from Korean food. Can't lump it all into one...


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 6:56 p.m.

Maybe a tad, but they'll have to work hard to come close to what Eve has created at Frita.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 5:17 p.m.

With all the horrid building going on it is wonderful to see someone care about an old building and combine the old with the new. These guys do good work and all of their food joints are pretty good--much better than some of the tired, sloppy cooking that dominates Main Street, but will continue as long as people like it. Nice to know the sound system will be good, I just hope it will not be too loud--a common problem.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 4:02 p.m.

I wish it was still Cunningham Drugs. One more example of the increasing Disneyland development of Main Street. Bring back real services to downtown. Enough restaurants!

lindsay erin

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 6 p.m.

You'd pay $1.80/hour for parking to go to your local drug store?


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 5:12 p.m.

The restaurants would not be bad thing if they weren't so overrated.. I was not impressed with Cafe Habana and hope this is better. Unfortunately the DDA and businesses need to realize average and/or inconsistent restaurants will not draw folks to A2 when there is nothing else around. We are down to a handful of store but there is really no shopping left - and yes I know it is expensive rents but I frankly am feeling that A2 thinks it is better scene than what it is in general.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 4:50 p.m.

I'm sure people will love it and both places will be a success. But can someone help define "modern and rustic" and "casual upscale" for me? Are they perhaps euphemisms for "sparce and dated" and "yuppie attire"? I also wonder what percentage of the clientele will appreciate that it looks like Cunningham Drugs? Will they even remember what that was and when it was there? .


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 4:21 p.m.

Normal businesses can't pay the rent now, so restaurants are what you will get. And I agree 100% that it is turning into a "theme park" down there.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 3:18 p.m.

The Gollywobbler had great private booths


Sat, Aug 25, 2012 : 4:14 p.m.

And that's ALL it had! LOL

Lizzy Alfs

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 3:05 p.m.

Just a note on the sound system from Jessie Nieves, marketing director for Paragon Sight & Sound: "Leon Speakers and Paragon Sight & Sound teamed up to create an incredible soundstage that could be controlled by iPads. Paragon expertly managed the project and Leon expertly crafted the system to carefully match the decor and details of the restaurant."

J. Zarman

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 2:36 p.m.

Any word on whether Cafe Habana will offer happy hour specials? The discounted appetizers were a very nice deal at the original location.

Seasoned Cit

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 2:26 p.m.

Interior looks great but all those hard walls and ceiling it appears it will be another local restaurant that feels it has to have a noisy atmosphere to draw customers. As a seasoned citizen with hearing aids I'm willing to try it but chances are that one visit will be be it for me. Common Grill has great food, but people like to talk while eating and shouting across the table does make for enjoyable dining out.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 2 p.m.

It looks very nice, I can't wait to check out the menu. Good luck!

Edward Green

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 1:50 p.m.

The old Cafe Habana was a terrible attempt at Cuban Cuisine. Let's hope this Gabriel Vera guy actually knows how to make a good lechon. At least he acknowledges that the last incarnation of Habana was BAD.

J. Zarman

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 2:42 p.m.

In its original incarnation, Cafe Habana never seemed to describe itself as authentic Cuban cuisine. In fact, a web search often turns up the phrase, "Cuban- and Latin-inspired cuisine." Perhaps CH is intended as some sort of Cuban-influenced fusion.....


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 2:20 p.m.

Agreed. Went to Cafe Habana exactly once. Food was awful. Good beer was almost non-existent. Never went back. I will, however, try the new place as I like to try all new restaurants that pop up.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 1:14 p.m.

I love the exterior and I think the rest is gorgeous too--will try lunch there as soon as they open. Good luck!

Linda Peck

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 1:09 p.m.

Thanks for the interesting article! This place is sure to be popular. It looks great!

Top Cat

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 1:07 p.m.

The look of the place reminds me of Asbury Park, NJ.

Tex Treeder

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 12:55 p.m.

I enjoyed Cafe Habana at its old location and look forward to giving it a try in its new home. I'm not sure what "modern food of the Americas" means in practice, but I'm willing to give Lena's a shot as well. Good to see a healthy business located downtown again.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 12:25 p.m.

I poked my head in the other day, and wow. It looks amazing inside. The pictures, while beautiful, don't do the place justice. It is really warm with dark walnut, cozy cave-like booths, and fireplace that hangs from the ceiling. It was pretty exciting to see something like this in Ann Arbor! Can't wait to try the food.


Sat, Aug 25, 2012 : 4:13 p.m.

If that's true, I'll reserve judgment!

Lizzy Alfs

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 1:59 p.m.

@ilovefood: You're right about the pictures. The restaurants are still not quite finished as they prepare to open next week, so our photographer had limited space to work with. There are a lot of details not shown in the gallery.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 12:12 p.m.

I love the fact that they kept the "Cunningham Green" and style on the exterior, but I too am disappointed with the interior furnishings. Perhaps it's because I "lived" mid-century, as it is now called. It just looks sparse and dated to me, not modern. I do like the idea of the private booths. Cafe Habana looks like a nice place to cozy up after coming in from the winter cold though. Interesting that it will have it's own entrance. Hard to imagine how they could squeeze 80-100 people into the space between the building and the street due to lack of real estate there.


Sat, Aug 25, 2012 : 4:12 p.m.

Wow, you said EVERYTHING that I was thinking. The bare tables look tacky but the booths inviting! Each to his or her own!


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 11:34 a.m.

looks good: liking the pared down interior. Will certainly check it out....


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 11:22 a.m.

The interior of Lena looks as inviting as a school cafeteria, especially compared to the warmth and vibrancy of Cafe Habana. Very dissapointing.

David Wizard

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 3:04 p.m.

Keep us posted if you have any more sunshine to spread.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 11 a.m.

95 employees to 270 seats; is that a common staffing/customer ration in the food service industry? Seems like a lot of staff. Looking forward to dropping in to see the changes.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 12:17 p.m.

He's giving TOTAL numbers. You need to account for all the kitchen and waitstaff that only work 15 hours a week or less. There's also prep crew...which he MUST have with sourcing food locally. That right there is going to be a HUGE part of their quality. When you prep your food fresh get quality taste.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 10:41 a.m.

I would like to spend my money here but is the downstairs area handicap accessible?


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 9:04 p.m.

Thank you Lizzy. We will make it a point to visit. Some businesses in town are not so friendly.

Lizzy Alfs

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 3:06 p.m.

From Jon Carlson, via email: "The first floor is completely (handicap accessible) with handicap bathroom as well...There is no elevator in the building. Half of our restaurants have elevators and half do not in these historic buildings . That said , we will offer anything available on both floors to someone that asks."

David Wizard

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 3:03 p.m.

Doesn't it have to be, by law? The ADA is pretty strict.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 10:35 a.m.

Good luck! Sad to see the Greek place go, but that's the reality of the restaurant business.