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Best overall restaurant: Old Capital Tavern reigns supreme with 6 wins

Alyssa Zaczek, azaczek@stcloudtimes.com

SAUK RAPIDS — What does it take to be the best? Aaron Salzer and his team at Old Capital Tavern seem to know.

The restaurant and bar featuring hand-crafted cocktails and upscale food is the winner of the Best Overall Restaurant award in the 2016 Best of Central Minnesota Readers' Survey. Old Capital Tavern is also the winner of the Best Business Lunch, Best Bar, Best Beer Selection On Tap, Best Cocktails and Best Craft Beer awards.

Old Capital Tavern opened in June 2012 under Salzer's ownership, and the restaurant pays homage to the area's storied past.

"Whether it's actually true or rumored, the name 'Old Capital' goes back to the late 1800s, before Minnesota had a capital city. Sauk Rapids was in the running to be the capital, and it was one of the most popular choices because it was the northernmost point for the steamboats and trains; everything had to come through Sauk Rapids. 1884 was the year they were going to decide on the capital, but it was also the year Sauk Rapids got blown over by a tornado," Salzer said. "The idea for us was to come up with something unique to the community, and that's where the name comes from. It's like a history lesson when you walk through the door."

Although the restaurant and bar is styled in an old-school fashion, bar manager Ian Krafnick assures that the food and drink menus are anything but dated.

Krafnick says the bar at Old Capital has 50 tap lines and over 150 bottles of whiskey available for intrepid samplers. He and the bar team use fresh ingredients to make hand-crafted cocktail components in house, from real maraschino cherries to their own sweet vermouth.

"My job is to create this comfortable environment, where we can still push the envelope and push you out of your comfort zone a little bit. We want you to try something new, whether that's beer or a cocktail or food," said Krafnick. "I'm a big believer in knowing what you like, but just having that option to try something new ... helping open peoples' eyes to that new stuff is one of the most fun parts of my job."

"We try to locally source (our food), to be fresh and made in house every day. Why not do that with our booze?" Salzer said.

The food at Old Capital Tavern is a collaborative effort between head chef Sam Proell, Salzer, Krafnick and the other members of the kitchen staff. The menu leans towards American offerings such as pot roast and barbecue, with Asian, Latin and Creole influences.

Salzer said he laid out very few rules for the menu before the restaurant opened, but did leave Proell several stipulations.

"I just didn’t want to be like everybody else. The only direction I gave Sam when we opened was: no burgers, no wraps, no traditional, typical sandwiches. I do not want our menu to look like 99 percent of St. Cloud," he said.

"Our strength has been being unique (to the area). A lot of other restaurants in the community are stepping up their game because of it. It’s funny watching the other restaurants who have had that typical menu for a really long time getting new chefs, new menus, to try to keep up with it."

That creativity with cuisine also lends itself well to the restaurant's lesser-known venture: catering.

"We’re truly custom, anything you want, any budget, anyplace, we’ll do it," said Salzer. "If it's legal, we'll cook it."

Overall, Salzer and his staff say the secret to their success is two-fold: a dedication to innovation on all their menus, and a highly trained, highly educated staff.

"We really like to focus on education," said Salzer. "We have a former manager that is a cicerone (beer expert), he does whiskey classes once or twice a year. We're one of only a few restaurants in the country where our entire staff are certified beer servers in the cicerone program."

For both Salzer and Krafnick, there's joy in introducing newbies to the Old Capital way, which they've perfected in their four years of business.

"For me, the best thing to hear is someone say 'I've never been here before,' " said Krafnick. "You've never been here before? Great. Let me show you some things you might like."

Follow Alyssa Zaczek on Twitter @sctimesalyssa, email her at azaczek@stcloudtimes.com, or call her at 255-8761.

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