Zana restaurant to fill former Vinotecca location
By Kevin Elliott
One of the largest restaurant spaces in Birmingham is planning for a spring opening, as Zana was cleared by the city’s planning board at their meeting on Thursday, September 23, to take over the former Vinotecca location at 210 S. Old Woodward.
Restaurateur Mario Camaj said Zana will feature modern, contemporary American fare, offering a variety of salads, sandwiches, burgers and pasta for lunch, while the dinner menu will feature steaks and pasta with a Mediterranean flavor.
The restaurant will be the third for Camaj, who purchased Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro in Birmingham in 2013, and opened BESA Detroit in 2018. Raised in Albania, Camaj moved to Michigan and started working as a bus boy before working for and purchasing Tallulah from Mindy Lopus. Both BESA and Zana draw upon Camaj’s roots, offering a taste of the Adriatic. He said the name Zana refers to Albanian folklore in which “zana” are mythical mountain fairies.
“My background is Albanian,” he said. “Obviously, I know that type of cuisine very well, and I think it is received well in this city.”
With seating in the space for nearly 250 people, in the former restaurant space for Vinotecca and The Bird and the Bread, owners had opted to split the space, utilizing about 130 of the seats as a banquet facility. Camaj said plans include adding a second kitchen for the extensive seating areas.
“One thing I asked when we took over the existing space was to leave the existing kitchen to run the back of the house, and build another kitchen to make the front of the house a little smaller, a little more intimate and cozier so the restaurant can function better,” Camaj said. “Previously, with Vinotecca or Bird and the Bread, it was just logically hard to run a 250-seat restaurant out of one kitchen. We know the nature of Friday and Saturday night, and it’s just not doable. One thing we are changing is that.”
On the exterior of the building, a set of accordion-style Nano doors will be added to the front to allow for more open dining in the warmer months. Existing outdoor seating on the terrace will be removed to allow for the changes.
Birmingham Planning Board member Janelle Whipple-Boyce said she was disappointed about the loss of the seating.
“I believe that was one of the best things about this location,” she said. “I was so excited for this project to come tonight, and when I saw the terrace was closed up I couldn’t believe it.”
Camaj said the decision to add a second kitchen uses a good portion of space, leading the design to optimize space that could be used throughout the year.
“We know seasons are short when it comes to patios, and it’s a matter of utilizing the space the best we can,” he said.
Planning board member Stuart Jeffares questioned if another Nano door could be added to the design to increase airflow and ventilation, which may be a concern to diners during COVID.
Board members also had concerns about how the banquet facility would be managed. Previously, the building was home to South Bar, which closed in 2012, following a spate of violence at the nightclub. Prior tenants used the space as special banquet and event spaces. Camaj said the restaurant will oversee all events, with safety a main concern. He said he plans on a midnight closing on the weekends, with the kitchen remaining open until the close of the restaurant.
“I have an existing business in town and I like to welcome anyone and everyone through my doors, but at the same time my priority is the safety of our guests, the safety of my staff and the people around me, and myself,” he said. “There is money to be made, but in a fair way that ensures everyone goes home at the end of the night, and is safe.”
Camaj said he plans for a March 2022 opening. Board members recommended the Birmingham City Commission approve the project’s site plan, design review and special land use permit. The matter is expected to go before a new city commission for final approvals in November.