Dan Kaercher enjoys a side dish of local history with the food and wine served at a 1920's era bank, now restored as a bistro in Ladora.
Hosted by Dan Kaercher, Iowa's Simple Pleasures features Iowa travel destinations, restaurants, events, parks, recreation and more. Produced by Iowa Public Television, the series highlights fun things for Iowans to do, see and taste, right here at home.
Kaercher: In our disposable society, many historic buildings have been left to fall into disrepair, but one 1920's era building in Iowa County was brought back to live another life, much to the delight of those who enjoy a side of local history with their food and wine. Ladora looks like a one-horse town, if there was one. In this community of under 300 residents, there's just one convenience store and gas station, a defunct grain elevator, and just five buildings on main street. Only one of those five is open for business. It's a former bank listed on The National Register of historic places that draws visitors from near and far who like to eat, the Ladora Bank Bistro. Brad, it is such a contrast when you walk in the Bank Bistro from the deserted Main Street of Ladora. Do you often get surprised reactions from customers when they come in?
Erickson: Virtually every time. We really like to refer to it as the wow factor. When you walk in here, most people look up at our high ceilings and just go wow. That's what we want. That's what we want to see.
Kaercher: Brad discovered and fell in love with this 1920 building while on a motorcycle ride along Highway 6 between Grinnell and Iowa City. He and his fiancée, Colleen Klainert, spent four years renovating the bank. Do you ever just gaze up at those words that encircle the whole building?
Erickson: Over, constantly. Diligence is the mother of virtue. I remember specifically it was February probably of '05 or '06, I was up on scaffolding working on restoring the lettering. We had no heat in this place, no electricity. Colleen called me on the cell phone while I was dangling up there on the ladder, and she says, "What are you working on?" I said, "I'm working on diligence." It took a great amount of diligence to get it to this point.
Kaercher: Within their limited space, they use one of the bank vaults as a wine cellar, put the wine bar behind the tellers cage, and use the upstairs former bank boardroom for seasonal dining, with chairs creatively upholstered to look like a board of directors.
Klainert: We have a group of retired bankers who come in from Grundy Center with their friends and request the boardroom, where they love to have a great time.
Kaercher: But the main dining area is the bank lobby, where offerings include 78 wines, 38 beers, and a menu of hearty appetizers.
Klainert: We really don't have the space to put in hood systems, full cooling systems. Everything on our menu has to be something that we can make here, we can hand make, and then we can prepare as people come in. What we tell people is a meal is when you eat until you're full, and we'll definitely fill you up.
Kaercher: What would you call some of your signature features here?
Klainert: The Strombolis are both -- we have a Strombolis Rosso and Rianco that are pretty much local favorites. They're like a big braided pizza and stuffed with cheese and sauces and one with sweet sausage and another one with ham.
Erickson: Here are our food offerings for you, Dan.
Kaercher: Great, Brad. Wow, you've got some interesting features here. But you know what, I'm going to let you choose for me. Just a mixture of your house specialties, how about that?
Erickson: Absolutely. I'll tell you what, probably one of our most popular is the La Quercia Prosciutto. Actually this prosciutto comes out of Norwalk, Iowa. It's world renowned. I think you're going to love it. It's a nice selection of different cured hams on a sampler platter.
Kaercher: Holy cow! Look at that. I took my time here, to not just eat and talk with the owners but to meet a few of the patrons, all of who seem to come from different backgrounds.
Linden: I really do love it here because it's kind of my cheers. It's a place where Iowans from all walks of life come. There can be CEOs. There can be farmers, welders, folks just that do a little bit of everything. But once you get here, it's kind of everybody is in their happy place.
Kaercher: I understand you phone in your orders from the tractor. Tell me about that process.
Tanner: Well, you just -- you got the bank's number on speed dial. You just hit it because they close at 9:00. When you're going through town with something, you just say I'll be there in 15 minutes and pick it up.
Kaercher: Do you think any of your family ever was a customer here when it was a bank?
Tanner: Oh, I know they were, yes. Yes. My great-great-grandfather owned a fourth of it when it was built.
Kaercher: In 1920.
Kaercher: And at the end of the bar is an eighty-year-old who's lived most of her life in Ladora.
Morgan: Most of it.
Kaercher: You have been in this building here most of your life then?
Morgan: I have. And it has been a few different things, but this is the most useful and used that it has ever been.
Kaercher: Kay Morgan is the niece of Ladora's famous native daughter, who was the original author of the Nancy Drew Mystery Books. Her pen name was Carolyn Keene, but the Ladora Bank Ledger, discovered in the basement during renovation, knew her by her birth name, Mildred Augustine. The building holds decades of community history but was opened as a bank for just eleven years. It closed in 1931 during The Great Depression. Brad and Colleen hope their business venture here is around for a much longer time. Now that the Bank Bistro is up and running, I suppose that's about it for you.
Erickson: Well, not really. I mean we're out here virtually every day working on something. As a matter of fact, we recently purchased the American Legion Building across the street. It is a big old beautiful structure. It was built in 1926. Of course, we had to put a new roof on it, because I won't buy a building unless it needs a new roof. We're going to try to renovate that and turn into that into a bed and breakfast.
Kaercher: We'll have to return once this B&B is finished, but for now I'm content to relax with my new friends at the Bank Bistro in Ladora. Cheers.