HOW THIS HIGHLANDS WATERFRONT RESTAURANT BECAME A YEAR-ROUND DESTINATION
BY JESSICA JONES-GORMAN • PHOTOS © AMESSÉ PHOTOGRAPHY
It’s wintertime at Proving Ground, and in keeping with the Garden State’s falling temperatures, the skilled mixologists there are shaking up something appropriately warm: Smoked Maple Bourbon Manhattans and Vanilla Chai Martinis with just a touch of torched cinnamon are served alongside pitchers of Snow Bunny Sangria and mugs of spiked Red Velvet Hot Chocolate. But it’s not just the drink menu that’s peppered with hints of winter spice—the restaurant is pumping out plenty of seasonal, family-friendly food and events, too.
“Everything here changes with the seasons,” noted Staci Gilchrist, Proving Ground’s general manager. “In the summer, the drinks are lighter, with a focus on fresh fruit purees, and the food is grilled and heavy with produce. In the winter, we experiment with some deeper flavors that bring a lot of warmth. We find that our clients really like that type of seasonal change.”
Part creativity, part branding strategy, the concept certainly works, and the restaurant is increasingly attracting a year-round crowd to a modern waterfront location often mistakenly perceived as a summeronly operation.
“We’re a little off the beaten path,” Gilchrist said, noting Proving Ground’s Highlands location on the Shrewsbury River, overlooking picturesque Sandy Hook. “People often view us as a destination, but we’re strengthening our off-season with fluctuating menu offerings and a variety of functions and events.”
Launched just two years ago, in the summer of 2018, the restaurant features a modern, slightly industrial vibe with warm wood tones, open-air dining, two outdoor bars, and a patio.
“We took a little history from the area when naming and designing the restaurant after the Sandy Hook Proving Grounds,” notes the restaurant’s website. “Established in 1874, it became the first U.S. Army Proving Ground to test artillery and other materials.”
“And that’s what we’re all about,” said the general manager, “testing new menu items and specializing in the newest craft beer and cocktails. We like to mix it up with our events, music, and other experiences to keep things fresh and fun.”
In the summer, patrons make use of Proving Ground’s “dock and dine” feature; in the winter, they gather for scheduled painting nights, crafting events, and live entertainment It also co-hosts a range of social events with local businesses like Pinot’s Palette, an art studio chain, and Time to Kiln, a painting and pottery-making studio, Gilchrist said. “We like to keep our functions local, promoting businesses in our area. We serve the food and cocktails while guests enjoy their activities. We recently started a monthly Kids Club, too, which parents and children attend on select dates to participate in a craft and have an early dinner at 4 p.m. You enjoy a nice night out with your child and leave with something very personal that you made.”
There will also be a “dueling piano” show for Valentine’s Day, and comedy and local art shows are also on the slate.
“We like to engage the community around us,” Gilchrist said. “We try and do things that no one else is doing, make ourselves a little different than everyone else. Today it seems that restaurant tables are filled with people buried in their smartphones. We’re hoping to engage customers with lively events and a person – able staff.”
Proving Ground’s menu also encourages sharing. “We touch on a little bit of everything here—lots of shareables, because we are a family-oriented place,” she said.
“No one goes out for a three-course meal anymore, so we do a lot of small plates that allow people to try it all.”
The signature appetizer is Buffalo Cauliflower, which is made with a butter – milk marinade then doused in buffalo sauce and served with pickled celery and blue cheese dressing.
“There’s currently a lot of hype around vegan and plant-based foods,” said Gilchrist. “So we made a point of offering those types of dishes. We always feature a veggie burger, and have a Mediterranean sampler that’s all vegetables.”
There are plenty of other options, too. Proving Ground’s popular burgers are made from a blend of brisket, chuck, and sirloin and then served on pretzel or brioche buns or a classic Kaiser roll. There are six different salads to choose from as well as two kinds of soup. Other entree options include a New York Strip Steak, a Chicken Pot Pie, and a hearty Lobster/Crab Mac & Cheese.
For dessert there’s Guinness Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding drizzled in a Baileys Irish Cream sauce and Cheesecake drenched in Cointreau sauce with orange and cranberries.
“We have a dessert chef who creates a new menu each season,” said the general manager.
An additional draw is private event space. The restaurant regularly hosts baby and bridal showers, holiday parties, and celebrations of confirmations and first communions.
“We’re building an interactive space here,” Gilchrist concluded. “We want people to enjoy our food and our drinks, but we also want them to enjoy the atmosphere and the vibe that we’ve created. Dining out should be an experience—and that’s exactly what we’re providing.”
56 Shrewsbury Avenue, Highlands / 732.872.2266 / theprovingground.com