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Posted on Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Restaurateur Sava Lelcaj to open new restaurant and bar in downtown Ann Arbor

By Lizzy Alfs


Sava Lelcaj, owner of Sava's Restaurant and babo market, plans to open a small plates restaurant and bar on East Washington Street.

Melanie Maxwell |

Ann Arbor restaurateur Sava Lelcaj has plans to open her third venture downtown: a Mediterranean small plates restaurant and bar.

Lelcaj signed a lease Wednesday afternoon to take over the space occupied by Mahek Indian restaurant at 212 E. Washington St.

That move — coupled with her recent purchase of the neighboring building at 216 E. Washington — will create a roughly 6,500-square-foot restaurant and bar just blocks away from her babo market and Sava’s Restaurant. She’s hoping to open the new business this fall.


Sava purchased the building at 216 E. Washington St. in 2012, and signed a lease for the neighboring Mahek space this week.

Joseph Tobianski |

“I love this city,” Lelcaj said. “For me, downtown works and I think will continue to work.”

Lelcaj entered the Ann Arbor dining scene in 2007, when she opened Sava’s State Street Cafe in a small second floor space on South State Street. When CVS took over that building, Lelcaj moved across the street to the former Zanzibar and opened the much-larger Sava’s Restaurant.

In 2011, she opened her specialty market, babo, on the corner of Washington and Division streets.

“I’m feeling really comfortable,” Lelcaj said, referring to her business endeavors. “It’s exciting. (The small plates restaurant) is something we had planned a while ago…we wanted to wait and see what Isalita was going to do so we could do something different and complementary for our town.”


Sava, pictured in 2011 at her Sava's Restaurant, will operate three businesses in a three-block span of downtown Ann Arbor. file photo

In late 2012, Lelcaj purchased the building at 216 E. Washington St. for $750,000, and then leased a portion of the space to a California-based technology company. The company agreed to move out for Lelcaj to open her new restaurant.

Shortly after, Lelcaj said she approached the owners of Mahek — at 212 E. Washington, directly next door to her building — along with the building’s owner, Steve Welch. They reached an agreement for her to take over Mahek’s space, although it hasn't been determined when the restaurant will officially close.

“My father is getting older and we all have professional jobs and he can’t do it anymore,” said Sandeep Singh, whose father owns Mahek. “I just want to say thank you for all (our customers’) support and for being loyal customers.”

By combining the two spaces, and keeping second floor space for her personal offices, Lelcaj plans to create a rustic, Mediterranean small plates restaurant and bar.

“We have a couple different cuisines and concepts, but we’re going to do some traveling and research to figure out what exactly is the cuisine that will most appeal to people of Ann Arbor,” she said.

She said the restaurant will offer small plates — a type of cuisine that refers to serving several small courses that are meant to be shared. A Spanish tapas concept is one option she’s considering.

“With the aesthetic of the building and how old and rustic and cave-like it is, it really made me think of something Mediterranean,” she said. “(The basement) reminded me of something in Europe, where my grandma would hang meat. It sounds cliche, but it really did.”

She said the restaurant will likely be a dinner and late-night spot, and it will have an outdoor patio. The menu hasn’t been determined, but Lelcaj said it will be “price conscious.”


Sava opened her babo market in downtown Ann Arbor last year. file photo

Lelcaj expects to start extensive renovations soon, which will completely gut the Mahek space. She said the kitchen will be the “heart” of the restaurant, with the dining room and bar on either side. She plans to utilize the basement for private parties.

Lelcaj estimated her investment, including her building purchase, will reach $1.5 million.

“We’ll be remodeling the front (of the building) and possibly using the side of the building for artwork,” she added.

As for her personal involvement in the three ventures, Lelcaj said the proximity makes it easy to jump from business to business.

“I can see a customer at babo for lunch, and then go over to Sava’s and see them there for dinner,” she said. “Also, what’s important is the neighborhood…I’m in love with the block. I love Washington Street.”

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



Fri, Mar 1, 2013 : 1:42 a.m.

Noooooooo! Not Mahek!!!!


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 9:52 p.m.

The grilled cheese for grownups with their tomato bisque is one of my favorite meals. Overall the restaurant isn't inexpensive but the food is well worth it. I prefer it to just about anything on Main Street. Also, Sava is incredibly welcoming and personable and it really shows in both the spaces she has created as well as the attitude of her employees. Babo is also a touch on the expensive side but the food is high quality and the staff is very helpful Anything out of her hot/cold bar is delicious. Can't wait to try the new joint! (And find out what she names it).


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 7:36 p.m.

I love the food at Sava's and Babo is fabulous too! I've never had a bad meal at Sava's and they have plenty of options for us vegetarian and vegan folks. I think it can be very reasonably priced, dependent on what you order. A $2 bloody mary with the all you can eat brunch? Can't beat that! A $2 PBR served in a wine glass on the patio in the summer- fab! The staff is always concerned that you're happy. I'm disgusted at the commenter who said he left without paying- what terrible etiquette! When you have an unsatisfactory experience, the proper thing to do is send it back for another option- not stiff the restaurant and the server. Rude. Babo is great any time, for a quick no-fuss meal or unique specialty items that are hard to find elsewhere. I'm excited for the new place and hope that it does become more of a small plates/bar crowd type of experience. Sava herself is also one of the friendliest people you'll ever meet- sweet, kind, and super involved with her business and customers. You go girl :) -Kim Williams


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 7:40 p.m.

I think the commenter meant someone else at his table was paying the bill!

Cole Bertsos

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 5:43 p.m.

I'm excited to see what she does with the place — the building has so much potential!


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 5:21 p.m.

Exciting times in A2 for foodies. Guess that economy's doing much better than people think. I'm a big fan of Sava's on State b/c of the value - similar dishes on Main will cost 50% more. I'm still hoping for a straight-up French restaurant, but I'll take this.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 5:07 p.m.

I'll be sad to see Mahek go — their food's pretty darn good. That said, good luck to Sava on her new venture. ...which leads me to a question I've long wanted to ask: How does one pronounce "Lelcaj"? Every time I read an article here about one of her businesses, I'm sure I'm massacring her name in my mind.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 6:45 p.m.

It's an Albanian last name. The Albanian language is difficult in pronunciation as it is not related to any other language (ex. Romance Languages, Germanic, Etc). The 'j' sound usually sounds like a long 'i' sound. My guess is that it would be pronounced lel-KAI?


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 4:53 p.m.

A Tapas restaurant (with amazing sangria) would be a great addition to Ann Arbor!!

Jenn McKee

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 4:46 p.m.

I'm looking forward to checking out the new place when it's finished, but I'll admit, too, that I'll miss Mahek. Thanks to the Singh family for providing an affordable Indian lunch buffet option for so many years!


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 4:45 p.m.

Not a fan of the small plates concept. I might go there for a cocktail and just one "plate"... but dinner at these places ends up being overpriced. (I'm looking at you, Mani). Also.... what happened to the salad bar at Babo?? I loved it. I went 1-2 times a week. (My office is a block away.) I went there a few days ago, and it's just gone. Kaput. What happened?


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 9:14 p.m.

I loved it as well. I was told by the staff that they gave it exactly 6 months to be profitable and it just wasn't. I think the juice bar is a good addition but i will definitely miss the salad bar.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 4:32 p.m.

I love Sava's, and have never had a bad meal there. Also, some of the friendliest service in town. I haven't been to babo's yet, but look forward to trying her new place.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 4:30 p.m.

I'm surprised at some of the negative (and in some cases, unfair) comments. Sava's menu has both lower-priced items, no doubt helping draw the student crowd, and relatively higher priced dinner items, with dinner items having gradually migrated more upscale in the 3(?) years since it took over the old Zanzibar space. It is quite busy and popular, presumably because of the varied menu and good food, and generally excellent service (and prime location) . It is often quite packed on evenings when there are performances at Hill, Power, Rackham, Mendelssohn, etc. It's not surprising that she can expand with a third restaurant. How anyone can call it overpriced is beyond me. It's quite reasonable, and in my experience nearly always (in dozens of mostly evening visits) the meal has been tasty and well-prepared. The wine list is pretty good, and surely not overpriced.

Ryan J. Stanton

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

Sava, you make Ann Arbor a better place. Thank you! Hope to see something delicious and vegan on your menu so I can stop in now and then.

Proleptically Living

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 4:26 p.m.

I concur with Ryan.

Lizzy Alfs

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 3:08 p.m.

I didn't put this in the story, but one thing that was really important to Sava was creating a "late-night spot." Because Sava's Restaurant opens at 8 a.m. and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, Sava said it just doesn't work to keep that open until 2 a.m. But with this new place, she can focus on dinner and then keep the bar open late so it becomes a hang-out spot.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 2:40 p.m.

Glad to see business happening in this town, but I cannot afford to patronize these places. Small plates usually equals big bills, no matter how " authentic the atmosphere" is. 1.5 million to acquire and finish out the space tells you there is profit in concept dining.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 4:25 p.m.

I actually think the one difference about her places is she does not overprice her items; prices are very reasonable at the restaurant, so I doubt this place would be any different. The market pays downtown rent and its products are cheaper than Whole Foods and Plum. She's also very involved in the community and really gives back, that's just another reason to support her businesses. You don't see that from many other business owners.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 3:17 p.m.

"Small plates usually equals big bills" Exactly. Doesn't matter how good the food is and I don't overeat. But it isn't worth it to leave hungry. Some places justify the cost by stuffing you full of bread and salad so you leave full, pay a big bill, and they rack in the profit on an overpriced, small meal. This my be for some, but not for me.

Holly Richardson

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 2:35 p.m.

Congrats to Sava! I've been to Sava's a handful of times and have enjoyed the food and service very much, not to mention the beautiful atmosphere.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 2:29 p.m.

Sounds exciting! She did a fabulous job with the savascatering restaurant. It is ALWAYS packed in there.

Lets Get Real

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 1:32 p.m.

Do one thing well first. Had my first meal at Sava's earlier this month. Disappointing, and I didn't even pay the bill. I'll not be back, nor will my business recommended it to customers. Way better stuff out there. But then the clientelle - students with lots of Dad's money who need the pretense of being grown up - seem to be oblivious to the food.

David Paris

Fri, Mar 1, 2013 : 11:08 a.m.

My wife and I used to frequent the old place, and enjoyed it very much. But, that is where we first encountered bad service (in Sava's absence). We went back, bad service again. She opened the new place across the street, we checked it out, more bad service. My wife went there with a work group, more bad service. She's very nice, and full of energy, but I think we've given her enough chances, we're done until she gets her dispassionate staff under control. (to those of you who really enjoy bad service, go ahead and give me, and "Let's Get Real" a thumbs down!)

Ann-Marie Murphy

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 6:19 p.m.

Just my opinion, @Twanders. I have tried Sava's twice and it's just not for me. I wish Sava best of luck though; it's good to see so many local businesses popping up lately.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 4 p.m.

@twanders, if they can't get everything on their menu done well they should shorten the menu to what they can do well. Why would you recommend giving it a 2nd try when you have stated that not everything on their menu is well done?????


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

My family and friends have been eating at Sava's often of late and we all think it's excellent. Yes, the clientele is very young but it adds energy to the room. So much better than, say, The Earle which is like eating in a crypt.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 2:52 p.m.

I have had several good meals there. Not my absolute favorite in AA, but decent.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 2:32 p.m.

I would give it a second try. My first experience at savascatering wasn't the best, I tried it months later and was pleasantly surprised. There's a lot on the menu, so obviously they can't do everything well. Before you give it nasty reviews in a public setting give it a second chance.

Ann-Marie Murphy

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 1:59 p.m.

Totally agree. I've eaten at Sava's and thought it was terrible. Can't say I can get too excited about another awful (and likely overpriced) restaurant in town.

Kellie Woodhouse

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 1:20 p.m.

When I moved to Ann Arbor I was pretty surprised there wasn't a straight-up tapas restaurant downtown, such restaurants were pretty big in D.C. and even Baltimore, where I've lived. Isalita, and now Sava's new venture, are definitely going to round out downtown's already extensive dining options.

Lizzy Alfs

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 2:40 p.m.

I loved San Chez in Grand Rapids when I went. I just like being able to try a bunch of different things on a menu, but not commit to anything! :)


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 1:13 p.m.

Thanks for clearing that up Lizzy re: @beards comment. Exciting news! Looking forward to seeing this place.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 1:06 p.m.

You go, girl!

Proleptically Living

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 11:47 a.m.

Ann Arbor is fortunate to have an energetic entrepreneur like Ms. Lelcaj. Many of my favorite establishments are on Liberty Street, but now its parallel will give me some options.


Thu, Feb 28, 2013 : 11:34 a.m.

That is very cool. Exciting for East Washington.