Midtown Detroit restaurateur waits to reopen a once-thriving tavern

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — As he cleaned tables out in front of Tony V’s, the restaurant he and his fiancé own, Tony Vulaj wistfully recalled the boom times.

Before early March, Vulaj benefited from the city's rebound and Wayne State's increasing success of establishing itself as a residential university.

Graduate students of drinking age and professors remained around the school after class, rather than jumping into automobiles.

With brick oven pizzas, salads and burgers made from scratch and the full panoply of the sports scene in the city on display, university staff and students, city workers and residents in Midtown stopped in.

Prospects for a partying summer percolated.

Then, poof. Without warning, it vanished.

“I couldn’t even get mad at anybody,” Vulaj said, mulling the emergence of the novel coronavirus, as he stood near his place on Cass, just north of the Wayne State Law School.

Tony Vulaj, manager of Tony V's Tavern, cleans tables May 19 in preparation for the day the restaurant is allowed to reopen. Other extensive work was done to the bar, including resurfacing of the floors, during the lockdown.

“I cannot be mad at anybody. That’s the biggest hit,” he said, joking about the irony.

But with a scent of remote success, Vulaj said he is preparing to do what he can, amid the shock of the new.

Having heard of the decision by the state to allow some return to normalcy from COVID-19 in northern portions of the peninsulas, Vulaj is concocting strategies to operate a barkeep's business safely and successfully.

He said he knows success is likely to proceed from safety amid the new normal.

“Trying to clean up and get it ready so we can open it, and try to see how we go,” Vulaj said. “We’ve been closed since March 7.”

Tony Vulaj, left, manager of Tony V's Tavern, helps clean tables in preparation for the day the restaurant is allowed to reopen.

Able to pay his employees for only the first two weeks, Vulaj and his fiancé, Katherine Luldjuraj, wonder if the staff they value highly will return.

They wonder if their customers will return and in numbers large enough to support their business. And they wonder which of the businesses in the area will reopen at all, let alone remain open.

His family has been operating in Midtown for 19 years. He also owns the Campus Diner and, his brother, The Olympic. Tony V’s is in its sixth year.

They have seen good times and bad. This is bad.

“We were in a really good time, with the university and our relationship with the city and city workers and the neighborhood here, and all of the different communities right in this area,” Vulaj said. “We were doing fine. But this coronavirus killed it. No warning, man.

“I never believed it would be this bad,” he said. “And it is.”

In the wake of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's decision this past week to let northern Michigan businesses reopen with restrictions, Vulaj is waiting for her to issue a reprieve for the rest of the state.

“I hope it will come very soon, man,” Vulaj said of the governmental green light. “It should come very soon.”

His strategy?

“Masks,” he said. “Gloves. Just like everybody else was going to do. Well, we’ll do the same thing. We hope she’s going to let us open, and do it with people at least six feet apart."

As for the prospect of operating well below the bar's capacity of 162 people, Vulaj is philosophical: “Something is better than nothing.”