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Fine dining in the heart of the prairie

Ladora Bank Bistro in Ladora, Iowa – Contributed

By Jordan Scheibel

If you drive out of Grinnell heading east on Highway 6, 25 miles later you’ll come upon Ladora. It would be easy to pass through this town of 287 people without much of a pause—right past the tightly clustered rows of houses, the boarded up main street, the non-descript city hall and fire station, and the Ladora Stora gas station— if it weren’t for the majestic old Ladora Savings Bank Bistro right in the middle of it.

Its classical stone architecture and the triumphant engraving above the entrance—“the wealth of this community embodies the richness of her soil, the integrity, frugality and diligence of her people”— are a reminder of an earlier time in Ladora, the year 1920, when high grain and land prices drove a prosperity and straightforward optimism that has long since disappeared, along with Ladora’s main street businesses. Even by the time the bank opened in the summer of 1920, the post-World War I affluence that drove its construction was drying up.

The Ladora Bank was only able to survive as a bank for 11 years, closing down in 1931 during the onset of the Great Depression. Since then it has played many roles—a community center, an insurance office, a civil defense shelter, a voting station, a place for truckers to sleep (before the completion of I-80 in 1964 drew commercial traffic and business away from Highway 6 and Ladora), an attorney’s office, an antique shop and a drapery business. The bank’s latest one, a wine bar and bistro, may be the strangest and most fitting one of all.

Brad Erikson, a Grinnell resident, first saw the bank on a motorcycle ride through the country in 2003. “Look at this jewel in the middle of nowhere,” Erickson recalled, recalling spotting the bank for the first time. It is an impression probably shared by many travelers on Highway 6 over the years. Brad Erickson, unlike other passers-through, decided to buy the bank in 2004, intending to make it a home. As he worked to restore the marbled, high-ceiled interior of the bank, he found visitors wandering in and peeking through the windows, thinking it was museum. He eventually had to lock himself in when he was working and rethink how he was going to use this 85-year-old edifice.

After four years of restoration work, he and his wife Colleen Klainert opened the Ladora Bank Bistro in May 2008. At a glance its easy to think that an upscale wine bar and bistro, with wines ranging in price from around $20 to $190 a bottle and appetizers running between $8 and $10, would be a gentrified establishment in a place like Ladora. Although Brad notes that they rely on a far-ranging customer base from urban areas like Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, with people coming from as far as five hours away to visit, locals and out-of-towners alike have embraced the Bistro.

There is even a group of local farmers who formed a club based on Dom Perignon, the Bistro’s most expensive grape delicacy. Brad also noted that the Bistro has become a halfway meeting point for Grinnell College faculty and their colleagues in Iowa City. He hopes more people from Grinnell, including students, will make the drive out to Ladora.

While the Bistro serves only drinks and appetizers, rather than entrees, Brad and Colleen encourage customers to stay for while, to savor their food and drinks and to share. The appetizers incorporate a number of local ingredients, including Maytag Bleu cheese, Dayton Locker meats and Amana Colony preserves.

We tried the artichoke spread and mini mushroom tart—both were excellent. There are wines and beers from around the world, enough to suit many tastes and price ranges, but this a place to appreciate quality, not quantity. It’s also a place to appreciate the building itself, with the bank teller’s windows still dividing the central room in half and lettering around ceiling spelling out common-place wisdom like “frugality is the parent of fortune.”

From the local farmer enjoying some of the finest champagne in the world, or Iowa natives traveling long distance, looks like the Ladora Bank finally has a resident that is there to stay.

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