News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 14, 2013

Banking on a unique location

Chef invests in turning 1930’s 12 Points neighborhood bank into restaurant

TERRE HAUTE — One hole in the ceiling was shaped a little like Kentucky. Elsewhere there was peeling paint and small piles of old plaster. In short, the interior of the old bank building in Terre Haute’s historic 12 Points district had seen better days.

Chef Jimmy Saliju envisioned something more. Months later, his vision is becoming a reality.

Remarkably, today, the inside of the former Merchants National Bank building, which dates back to the 1930s, is a glimmering, stylish restaurant complete with dark wood floors, towering ceilings, impressively large windows, comfortable booths and sturdy tables. It also sports a beer and wine bar complete with old-style, barred, bank-teller windows as part of the decor.

“When I look at it, sometimes I don’t believe it,” reflects Saliju, a professional chef who has been working around the clock for months to prepare the restaurant to open soon. “It’s been constantly, hard work every day.”

The Old Bank Grill at Lafayette and Maple avenues appears to be, by far, the biggest single investment in 12 Points in a generation, not counting the nearby CVS or the Circle K convenience store across the street. Once a thriving business district, the neighborhood has been on life-support for years. Now and then in the past couple of decades, a few brave souls, some charmed by the old district, have opened small shops or even made bigger investments, taking advantage of low rents or relatively low property prices. Few — if any — have done anything of this magnitude, though.

“It seems like a lot of people are happy with what we’re doing here,” Saliju said in his heavy Albanian accent while gazing around his business, which will seat about 200 diners. “It makes you feel good when you see what you’ve accomplished.”

Welcome to the neighborhood

In present-day 12 Points, it’s hard to find occupied storefronts. As recently as 2007, there were several small shops in the older buildings, including a hair salon, a piano business, a variety store, second-hand stores, a wig dealer and a sewing business. Nearly all have closed.

Saliju could hardly have chosen a more economically challenged area of town in which to open the Old Bank Grill. Still, his optimism is contagious, and the quality of his work paired with the size of the investment makes a strong statement.

“The more businesses around here, the better,” said Crystal Hastings, an owner of Hair Divas, a hair salon around the corner at North 13th and Maple Avenue. “It looks like it’s going to be very pretty,” added Amber Jenkins, another co-owner, along with Crissy Renfro. As long as the Old Bank Grill is “not too expensive,” it should do well, they agreed.

Myrna Pigg, co-owner of M & J’s 12 Points Mall, a second-hand shop a few doors south of the Old Bank Grill, was looking over the restaurant’s menu, clearly pleased. She wondered aloud if the restaurant would have meal deliveries. “It’s okay [if they don’t], I can walk there and pick it up,” she said.

“My husband [Jack] loves chef salad,” she said, reading down the menu. “I’ll be there when it opens.”

On the menu…

Saliju is a trained professional chef; he studied in France and received much of his culinary experience in New York City after immigrating to the U.S. from the former Yugoslavia in 1981. A decade ago, he moved to Terre Haute, where he operated the European Grill on Margaret Avenue from 2005 to 2009. His new dining endeavor will feature Albanian, Italian, Greek and other Mediterranean cuisine, along with traditional American fare, such as steaks and seafood.

Menu prices will be fairly typical of family-style restaurants. The lunch crowd can expect to see prices of sandwiches ranging from a $6 “All-American Hamburger” up to $8 for a Pork Souvlaki sandwich. Dinners start at $9 for spaghetti and meat balls and top out at a $22 8-ounce filet mignon. Other items include Pork Chops Uskana ($13), European Steak ($12), St. Louis BBQ Ribs ($12), Chicken Venesiana ($13) and much, much more.

Reservations will not be necessary, but could help, Saliju said, especially for big groups. A 100-capacity banquet room is also available at the restaurant, as are private party rooms. He has already hired staff and their training started last week. The business will have between 35 and 45 employees, he said.

In a few months, from a storefront on Maple Avenue that connects to the restaurant, Saliju plans to open Jimmy’s Gelato, a café featuring the popular Italian frozen treat and also coffees, lattes and espressos.

A short walk from home

In its heyday, 12 Points was a happening place. Fifty years ago, within a block-and-a-half of the corner that is now home to the Old Bank Grill, you could find dozens of thriving businesses, including the Garfield Theater, the 12 Points Hotel, Kersey’s Tavern, the Apple House, A&P Foods, Steak-N-Shake, West’s Drug Store, 12 Points Pet Shop, Ray and Walls TV Sales and Service, and many others.

But by the 1980s, people in 12 Points were already looking in the rearview mirror to a more prosperous time. A 1984 Tribune-Star article quoted a 12 Points business owner wishing for a fast-food establishment to help bring traffic into the neighborhood.

Despite its loss of business over the years, 12 Points retains an old-fashioned “neighborhood” feel. Its two or three blocks of traditional storefronts are surrounded by residential housing; many of Hair Divas’ customers come from nearby homes, typically walking to their appointments, co-owner Jenkins said.

The new restaurant is also a stone’s throw from the Collett Park neighborhood, whose residents are anxiously awaiting its opening.

Saliju had a good reputation for a very interesting menu at the European Grill, said Anna Lee Chalos-McAleese, a board member of the Collett Park Neighborhood Association. “I think a lot of us will walk there,” she said. “It’s been decades since we’ve had a restaurant in that area.”

A few years ago, a now-defunct 12 Points Neighborhood Association made improvements to the district, including painting light poles, adding new trash cans and benches and hanging banners for neighborhood events. Improved sidewalks and a small city-owned park, known as Gold Medal Park, in the heart of the district, seem to provide a basic groundwork for additional business investments.

Success of the Old Bank Grill could serve as a catalyst for future business ventures.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

 

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