One of rural Iowa’s most unique restaurants is losing its chef, leaving the future of the Ladora Bank Bistro somewhat uncertain. The struggle to find a new owner for the restaurant shows how difficult it can be to keep historic buildings open in small town Iowa.
There’s nowhere quite like the Ladora Bank Bistro. It’s a romantic, white table cloth kind of place in a nearly 100-year-old bank building in downtown Ladora, population 274.
The classical revival style building has been preserved, but scarcely changed at all, since it was built in 1920. Original chandeliers hang from the ceiling, the marble tellers' counter is now the bar and the old bank vaults hold beer and wine.
On a recent prep day at the bistro, chef and restaurant owner Jim Vido showed off his unconventional pantry housed behind the intricate workings of the bank vault doors.
"All the wine, these are old field tiles. Very handy to hold the wine," he said. "I rearranged in here a bit, brought in a beer and wine cooler, a rack."
Another vault holds the old safety deposit boxes, and spices.
"This is fun always opening up," Vido said as the door creaked open. "Then I have a freezer in there that I keep some stuff in."
Squeezed into a galley kitchen in the back, Vido runs what’s been called the best small town restaurant in the state, pumping out gorgeous cheese boards and locally sourced charcuterie. Vido wows visitors from all over Iowa and neighboring states, working with little more than an undersized oven and a handful of induction burners (which look suspiciously like old-school hot plates).
A few months ago, the chef and sole proprietor announced it’s time for him to move on.
"One of the main factors is the limitations in the kitchen. Just kinda running out of ideas of what I can do here," Vido said. "Ready for a change."
Vido will be taking over the kitchen at Millstream Brau Haus in the Amana Colonies in March.
That leaves the owner of the building itself, Dimitri Makedonsky, trying to figure out what comes next. He first fell in love with the bank while passing through town on his motorcycle in 2004.
"I happened to notice this beautiful structure on the north side of the highway, right on the highway. And I was drawn to it," Makedonsky said. "So I just pulled the bike over, walked up and started putting my nose in the windows and looking around.
He poured thousands of dollars and years of his life into the place, patching leaks and preserving marble, the old wood, and the walls that still bear carved maxims about wealth and frugality.
"I was just completely blown away by all the antiquity that was still inside. All the chandeliers were hanging in perfect condition, the teller cages, all the marble and glass was still perfectly in place," he said. "It was kind of just…like walking back in time."
But across the state many of these signature civic buildings are crumbling. Schools, banks and historic homes are abandoned or demolished, and sometimes just replaced. Bruce Perry is the president of Preservation Iowa, which tries to help protect and save these buildings.
"If the average home value in a small town is $100,000 and you put $400,000 into restoring a Victorian home, it’s gonna be tough to get that money out of it," Perry said. "So it does pose unique challenges for rural communities, small towns."
Putting on a new roof could cost more than the building itself. Combined with the risk of starting any business in a shrinking community, the numbers don’t always add up. But it’s worth trying, Perry says, "so that they can remain economically viable. And that people can maintain this feeling of place, connection to the past, and have some of these structures serve as a bridge between the past and the future."
And there are ways to make it work. There are state and federal tax credits and grant programs. State and local historic preservation offices and the Iowa Economic Development Authority can help as well, with facade rehabilitation and technical assistance programs. Local non-profits may already be working to preserve particular buildings.
But it’s also important to find the right use for the right building, according to Josh Moe, a preservation architect with the firm OPN.
"Historic preservation that isn’t connected to a community and isn’t connected to any economic drivers might not be a good idea," Moe said.
He says the Bank Bistro strikes this balance really well.
"It’s this perfect confluence of a really cool space and a really good restaurant," he said. "This is an example of how small towns in Iowa can use preservation and conservation as a catalyst."
Back at the bistro, Vido is strategizing how to sell down his beer and wine collection before he leaves. He’s closing up shop after Valentine’s Day Weekend. But he thinks someone will fall in love with the place like he did.
"Yeah I hope…I hope that works out," he said. "It would be a shame for this building to not be used for something."
Makedonsky is still looking for that next chef. But he plans to keep a restaurant running in the old bank, and to reopen for business this April.