In the main dining space at The Vault Downtown, high on the walls, you’ll find a coal miner, a farmer, a sailor — all sculpture reliefs originally crafted decades ago and now freshly restored. But what these works of art represent goes much deeper than their gold leaf detail. Representing cherished trade skills from the early 1920s in Bluefield, these reliefs are only a few of the many hidden treasures that emerged during the renovation of this historic structure.
The Vault Downtown, named after the building’s origins as a bank, is a fine dining restaurant located on the corner of Federal Street in downtown Bluefield. The restaurant is in the Historic Bank Lobby, built in 1895 and first known as the People’s Bank. Originally set up as an event space, the Historic Bank Lobby soon began to offer catering for in-house events. From there, the space evolved into what is now The Vault Downtown.
“It didn’t come as one business plan or an epiphany that I needed to do a fine dining restaurant,” entrepreneur and owner of The Vault Downtown, Bill Cole, said. “I acquired the building because the owner needed to sell it, and I didn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands and not work closely with the renaissance in downtown Bluefield.”
Revival efforts in downtown include the addition of The RailYard, a restaurant owned by Cole’s brother; the Granada Theatre restoration project; a renewed spotlight on the arts and more. Cole knew the bank needed to blend well with the other revitalized businesses around it.
The idea started to morph into a fine dining experience when Cole began to consider what the area was lacking. And a fine dining restaurant seemed to check the box.
“We didn’t have a fine dining restaurant in the local area, and frankly, you could drive a pretty long way and still not get to a true fine dining restaurant,” Cole said. “So, I sort of changed courses for the third or fourth time of owning the restaurant to become a fine dining experience, and that’s when we really got heavy into the renovation.”
The building’s buried gems only came to light as the renovation continued. From preserving the gold leaf details to the bank’s original vault, Cole spared no expense to ensure every customer has a special experience while dining at The Vault Downtown.
The building was designed by prominent West Virginian architect Alex Mahood and was one of his earliest structures in Bluefield. In the late 1800s, Bluefield was the center of southern coal mining, and back then, all the coal-fed steam locomotives going through the rail yard less than two blocks away would blow cinders out of the stacks. The cinders would land the downtown buildings and catch them on fire. In order to prevent fires, Mahood was commissioned to build a building that couldn’t be burned down. The Vault, made entirely of cinderblock, is built like a fortress.
Along with the notable details and elegant architecture, Cole knew he needed to have a high-quality menu that featured entrees indicative of large cities to truly have a successful fine dining restaurant in southern West Virginia.
In January of 2020, Cole hired The Vault Downtown’s Executive Chef, Peter J. Zimmer, and moved him and his family here from Kauai, Hawaii. A “self-taught master chef” according to The New York Times, Zimmer’s passion for culinary creativity came early in life. Zimmer’s father, the founder of Rosewood Hotels, was a Silver Spoon Award winner for Food Arts Magazine and one of the most celebrated CEOs in hospitality.
And the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. While finishing high school, Zimmer trained under a Michelin three-star pastry chef and two Michelin star chefs at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Texas. From there, he went on to open and own a string of restaurants across the world and start his own restaurant consulting business.
In addition to his culinary work, Zimmer has been interested in revitalization projects for the last few decades. The last restoration project he worked on was the Kalispell Mercantile Building in Montana, the oldest functioning mercantile building in the northern hemisphere. When he came across Cole and the restoration project happening in Bluefield, he was hooked.
“I looked into the history in Bluefield, and the more I found out about the Historic Bank Lobby and what he was doing, I wanted in. ” Zimmer says.
Zimmer saw this as a great opportunity to try to do another restoration of a historic building with a group of people that cared about better commerce and bettering people’s lives by training and development.
Once Zimmer was on board, it was time to develop a unique menu that would not only provide food that could be identified by almost everyone in the region, but expand their palate and knowledge of the food. Zimmer and Cole collaborated to nail down a menu that was ideal for The Vault Downtown.
“There’s really not a box or a can that you would find anywhere in our restaurant,” Cole says. “We house make everything — all of our stocks, salad dressings, syrups for the cocktails at the bar — everything.”
From roasting tomatoes on the grill for their signature Bloody Mary mix to baking bread and desserts fresh every morning, The Vault Downtown’s staff go the extra mile to provide top-notch service.
The restaurant also receives deliveries twice a week from the largest fresh seafood provider in the United States to ensure the fish specials are the best and most unique in the region.
With a steadily changing menu, you can find Chef Zimmer and Sous Chef, Ryan Tayloe, serving dishes like buttermilk garlic fried chicken or sliders with fried green tomatoes and homemade pork belly.
“You should be able to pin the menu up on the wall, throw a dart and whatever you hit, you can order and I’ll pretty much tell you — you’ll like it,” Cole says.
Determined to make sure the quality of the food stays competitive with fine dining experiences in any big city, Cole also strives to keep the prices affordable.
Behind the bar, you can find Savannah Arrington, a Princetown native and the restaurant’s Front of House Manager and in-house certified mixologist. With over ten years of experience in the restaurant business, Arrington created The Vault Downtown’s hand-crafted cocktail menu and continues to use her innovative skills to release new beverages. Signature drinks include the refreshing Blueberry Gin Fizz, Tanqueray gin and house-made blueberry basil syrup shaken with citrus and egg whites, and the New Fashioned, a spin on the classic cocktail which pairs Jim Beam with hints of orange and cherry. The full drink menu offers classic and signature cocktails, beer, wine and bourbon and whiskey.
Along with the restaurant and bar, The Vault Downtown also includes a cigar lounge. The lounge is perfect for chatting with friends, trying new cigars and taking a few new cigars home at the end of the evening. The Vault Downtown offers a signature selection of classic cigars. You can find a full menu on the website.
“Ultimately, what you get is an excellent dining experience from the quality of food standpoint, a reasonable price and a staff that genuinely loves what they do and the customers that come in,” Cole adds.
The restaurant officially opened in August 2020, and now the staff at The Vault Downtown are looking forward to a new year with new customers.
Visit The Vault Downtown for an unparalleled dining experience. The restaurant is open from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. for happy hour and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner on Wednesday through Saturday. For more information or to make a reservation, visit thevaultdowntown.com.
This post was last updated on February 18, 2021