A traveler might drive right through Ladora without even realizing it. The tiny Iowa town, 83 miles east of Des Moines on US-6, is home to just 281 people (as of 2016). It's also home to the Ladora Bank Bistro, a fine dining restaurant situated in one of the last remaining "Jewel Box"-style banks.
Diners enter between two grand columns at the front of the restored 1920 bank and walk into a mosaic-tiled restaurant. Servers pour vino from the bank-vault-turned-wine-cellar. Shareable plates often use Iowa products, like Dayton's Meats bacon served draped around seared scallops. The food changes with the seasons, but if you see duck confit anywhere on the menu, get it.
So how do diners find this hidden gem? "A lot of our customers hear about us from someone who's been here before. We also get many customers that have read reviews or writeups about the bistro online, in the paper or in a magazine," says James Vido, the chef and owner, who also sees plenty of repeat customers. "The restaurant has been doing great. It definitely keeps me busy since I'm the only one cooking and prepping."
Big cities are known for their dining scenes, but plenty of small towns around the Midwest boast rave-worthy restaurants, too. Here are a few that are well worth a couple of hours in the car. (For more information about the Ladora Bank Bistro, visit ladorabank.com.) What should we add to the list?
The Ladora Bank Bistro in Ladora, Iowa; photo courtesy of James Vido
The Dancing Bear Cafe | Corder, Missouri
Located in a former chicken hatchery from the 1800s, The Dancing Bear Cafe is open Friday and Saturday evenings for dinner by reservation. Kansas City foodies drive 60 miles to Corder (population 404 as of 2010) to try seasonal dishes such as ginger butternut squash soup in the fall and fresh berry cobblers in the spring. thedancingbearcafe.info
Renaissance Cafe | Assaria, Kansas
Walls covered in antique opera photos—and sharply dressed waiters carrying antipasto spreads complete with fresh mozzarella and artichoke pesto—make it easy to forget you're dining in a 1919 high school gymnasium. Fans trek to Assaria (population: not quite 500) for housemade Italian sausage, black pepper-crusted ribeye and handmade ravioli stuffed with braised duck (menu subject to change). renaissancecafeassaria.com
Salad, dinner and dessert at Renaissance Cafe; photos courtesy of Renaissance Cafe
Ron's Cajun Connection | North Utica, Illinois
Owner Ron McFarlain was raised in Louisiana and now shares the flavors he grew up with, including some family recipes, with guests who are Starved Rock State Park visitors or some of the 1,352 people who call North Utica home. Classic Cajun dishes include alligator, catfish po-boys and crawfish creole. Diners rave about the bread pudding and boudin balls. ronscajunconnection.com
Harbor View Cafe | Pepin, Wisconsin
Pastel-colored chairs line the front of this sky-blue restaurant that attracts both visitors and locals in Pepin (population about 800) for dishes like saffron-braised chicken or grilled pork tenderloin with a ginger peach sauce. The menu, written on a giant chalkboard, changes daily, but you can always count on freshly-baked cake or pie for dessert—and scenic views of Lake Pepin. harborviewpepin.com
Dishes on the chalkboard menu at Harbor View Cafe change daily; Almond Cake with Lingonberries, a customer favorite; a line forms at dinnertime; photos courtesy of Tracy Rundquist, Midge Bolt and Mel Tinney
Rusty's Saloon and Grill | St. Anthony, North Dakota
A cowboy-style steakhouse that smokes their own meat, makes their own Alfredo sauce and serves towering bloody Marys from behind an antique bar with whiskey barrel-stools? Count us in. Diners can expect a scenic 30-minute drive from Bismarck through the rolling hills of Southern Morton County to get to St. Anthony, a town of 121. Rusty's Saloon and Grill Facebook page
Eat Restaurant | Dodge, Nebraska
Old-banks-turned-gourmet-restaurants are apparently not limited to Ladora, Iowa. The owner of Eat Restaurant chose a former bank in Dodge, Nebraska to serve "country-inspired, city-influenced" dishes such as grilled eggplant and portobello mushroom lasagna or sourdough bread with kalamata olives. Fewer than 600 people live in Dodge, but Eat is doing just fine; reservations are recommended if you want a taste of the locally-sourced, from-scratch cooking. Eat Restaurant's Facebook page
Gifts from the sea in Dodge, Nebraska; the bank's original pillars; Eat Restaurant's dining room. Photos courtesy of Eat Restaurant in Dodge, Chef/Owner Michael A. Glissman and Sous Chef/Owner Mama Lin Schwanebeck