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"The best country restaurant in the whole Northeast.”

Spotlight On… Prospectors Grille & Saloon!

It’s rare that we get to write a Spotlight On a country bar. The truth is that, while country music is definitely popular in South Jersey, country bars are difficult to find — and it’s even more difficult to find one with a decent selection of craft beer.

That’s where Prospectors Grille & Saloon at 3050 Rte. 38 in Mt. Laurel comes in. A longtime player when it comes to supporting the careers of up-and-coming country musicians, their consistent lineup of quality brews includes Cape May’s own Coastal Evacuation and Always Ready.

We got together with General Manager Carl Steward to find out what makes Prospectors “the best country restaurant in the whole Northeast.”

First thing’s first: Prospectors is gigantic. Huge. The lobby rivals the size of some restaurants, and the 28-foot-long salad bar contained within is enough to stave off the hunger of even the most ravenous of cowpoke. There’s a bar area with numerous tables. There’s a dining room with enough room to fit Lower Cape May Regional’s graduating class. A gigantic patio. And that’s only 2/3rds of the building — the other third is a nightclub with a 3,000-square-foot dance floor.

“The place is big,” Carl says. “You will find something here that you’re gonna like. A booth to sit in, a table. Out on the patio. You’re gonna find something here that you’re gonna love.”

The patio also doubles as Prospector’s sports bar. While they have 42 televisions scattered throughout the restaurant, the patio has a huge projection screen, as well. Even in February, the room was comfortable with plastic flaps keeping in the warmth.

For the [big game] last month, they had a $19 all-you-can-eat spread, the game on all of the televisions, and giveaways at the end of each quarter. Carl says he had about 80 people this year, though when the Eagles were in the game two years ago, he was at capacity. 

“That’s not usually a big on-premise night,” says Sales Manager Evan Kostka, referring to the fact that most people head to a party at someone’s house for the game. “That’s awesome.”

“It’s pretty big for us,” Carl says. “It doesn’t include alcohol, but we keep the food moving. We’ll have a carving station out there, and it gets packed.”

When you walk into Prospectors, you know you’re in a country bar. The half-wall between the bar and the seating area is topped with several thousand dollars worth of saddles, and there’s plenty of Western memorabilia adorning the walls. The bowls of unshelled peanuts on the bar are a nice touch, too.  

“We’ve got country music playing all the time,” Carl says. “We have a nightclub that does country line dancing four nights a week. And you’re not going to find a better dance floor — we’ve got the best DJs around.”

Even though Carl offered to get us in without a cover, we passed on the line dancing. We’re professionals, after all, and wildly uncoordinated. Regardless, Prospectors’ line dancing on Wednesday through Friday nights is a huge draw.

“If you like to people-watch, go into the nightclub,” says Carl. “On Wednesday and Thursday nights, we have country line dancing with instruction, and the instruction is included with the cover charge. Friday night is just dancing, then on Saturdays, we have an instructor early, then dancing, but we always have a live band on Saturday nights.”

As a bit of an outlier, they have ballroom dancing on Tuesday nights, with instruction and dancing.

On the first Friday of each month, XTU — Philly’s Country Station — comes through, throwing a huge dance party.

“It’s insane here,” Evan says. “It’s a huge thing.”

The music tradition at Prospectors is serious. Founded in 1994, Prospectors has seen some serious names come through as they worked their way up to larger venues. Martina McBride, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Brett Eldredge, Maren Morris, Gretchen Wilson, Laura Bell Bundy — those are just a few of the names that stuck out. 

In December, one of the biggest crossover artists in country music stopped by Prospectors on his Dive Bar Tour — Garth Brooks.

“It was amazing,” Carl says.

Prospectors was recommended for the tour to some of the production companies in Nashville, who then ran Prospectors’ name by some of the local country stations, asking if they were a reputable establishment. 

“From that, Garth picks who he’s going to work with,” Carl says. “He only does six or seven stops on the tour, and he doesn’t charge anything.”

Think about that for a second: a guy who routinely sells out 80,000-person stadium venues is willing to play a 500-person bar venue for free. Free for the venue, free for the fans. That’s high class, right there.

“When he does the Dive Bar Tour, that’s his way of giving back,” Carl says. “It’s him giving back to the places that gave him his start and help them build their name. Not that we didn’t have a big name before, but to get Blake Shelton when he was a younger, up-and-coming Blake Shelton or Garth Brooks when Garth Brooks is one of the top entertainers in the country, that’s a big difference.” 

Prospectors really enjoyed working with Garth Brooks. They put up some stanchions between the crowd and the band to protect him from the throngs of people attending the concert; however, when he arrived, Garth asked that they take them down.

“He was real cool, he was real chill,” Carl says. “Very easy to work with. When he came in and saw the stanchions he said, ‘What are you doing? Get those out of here! I want them to be right there! I want to reach out and touch them.’”

Garth was planning to do two shows that day — one at Prospectors and one at a bar in Boston –, but as a snowstorm blew through New England that night, sparing South Jersey, the showtime was moved back to 7pm and Garth played for an hour and twenty minutes, longer than was intended.

“It was a great night,” Carl says. 

The Mount Laurel Police pitched in to help with security that evening, as people began arriving two hours before the 5:30 planned start. However, huge crowds are to be expected at Prospectors on concert nights.

“It can get a little… active… we’ll say,” Carl says with a laugh.

Regardless, Carl is quick to remind us that, at their core, Prospectors is a family restaurant.

“We enjoy having the kids come in,” he says. “In our main dining room, we have a train that goes around the ceiling, and the kids love that thing.”

Aiding in that family-friendly atmosphere is the staff at Prospectors.

“The staff we have here is amazing,” Carl says. “Everyone we have here is very caring. Everybody’s all about hospitality and taking great care of the guests who come in.”

“Super professional,” Evan agreed. “I see it every time I come in here.”

Our bartender, Donna, was on point. Quick to refill drinks and terribly knowledgeable about the impressive menu, she helped us navigate through to find something we’d enjoy and that would pair well with the Cape May beers on tap.

“We started with Always Ready about a year ago,” Carl says. “It was doing really, really well, then a second handle came available, and I was talking to Evan to see what else we could bring in. I tried a few things, and I fell in love with Coastal Evacuation. It actually moves pretty well, which I expected.”

Evan says that the combination of Always Ready and Coastal Evacuation is usually a winner.

“When they’re on together, they move incredibly well,” he says. 

Prospectors has a few rotating handles and a few that they don’t change up: Always Ready and Coastal are part of their usual lineup.

“I like the fact that we can have something as good as Cape May and say that you can come here and always find it,” Carl says. “You’re not going to walk in tomorrow and say, ‘Oh, Coastal Evacuation is kicked!’”

While much of craft beer is built upon The Next Big Thing, there’s definitely something to be said for consistency.

“One of my other customers who will remain nameless comes here all the time because he knows he can get Coastal,” Evan says. “It’s his favorite beer, and he knows that he can always find it here.”

Both beers are available at the main bar, with Always Ready available on the patio and Coastal Evacuation available in the nightclub.

“So, you can get Cape May everywhere in this gigantic building,” Evan says.

As befits such a gigantic establishment, the menu at Prospectors is huge, as well, with numerous creations by Chef Willy Fraction, a nineteen-year veteran of the restaurant. 

“It’s massive,” Carl says, laughing. “There’s a lot of stuff on it, and a great variety of things on it, as well.”

There is a lot of stuff on the menu. It took us a while to decide upon our lunch for the day, having to navigate through pages of awesome appetizers, seven types of wings, an entire menu of sliders, salads (apart from their huge salad bar), burgers galore, sandwiches, chicken dishes, steaks, and ribs.

“The food is amazing,” Carl says. “We’re well-known for our steaks, which are absolutely delicious. If you’re looking for a great steak, get the T-Bone — it’s a 22oz T-Bone, and it’s delicious.”

Taco Thursdays are a huge draw at Prospectors, running from 4-6pm and featuring half-price tacos and beer specials. Thursdays are T-Bone nights, as well.

“We have great pasta dishes,” Carl says, “great chicken dishes, chicken marsala, chicken parm, chicken franchaise. We’ve got some great sandwiches, great burgers, some of the best wings around, some big, hearty wings.”

The huge salad bar is included with every dinner entree, and you can get lunch sizes for a lot of their dinner entrees. They have an extensive menu of specials, as well, which they change up from time to time. With dinner service until 10pm on weeknights, Friday and Saturday until 11, Prospectors has appetizers available until midnight every night.

In addition, Prospectors has a killer Sunday brunch, $14.99 all-you-can-eat buffet.

“We have an absolutely wonderful brunch,” Carl says. “With fresh omelets and waffles, it’s a great thing. We serve it every Sunday from nine in the morning until two o’clock in the afternoon. I don’t think you’ll find a better brunch around, especially for the price.”

We sat down to eat, and we weren’t disappointed. It was a little early in the day for us to be eating a steak, so we had to take Carl’s word about their deliciousness. 

We started with an order of their Road House Goldfingers: boneless chicken tenders dipped in their Southwestern seasoned flour and fried to a golden brown. They were unbelievably tender — they certainly weren’t the same, flat chicken tenders that you find everywhere. Served with honey mustard and their house barbecue sauce, paired with a pint of Coastal Evacuation, the beer brought out the spices in their seasoned flour beautifully.

Their Rancher’s Chicken sandwich was suggested by both Donna and Carl, and we weren’t disappointed. Tender, breaded chicken is fried to a golden brown and dipped in Prospectors’ tangy wing sauce, then topped with Pepper Jack cheese, tobacco onions, and ranch dressing. Absolutely delicious! Juicy, crunchy, bursting with fresh lettuce and tomato, and bringing a slight kick, there was an unexpected creaminess to the sandwich from the ranch dressing and the copious cheese. You’ll definitely want to pair this with an Always Ready — the hops bring out the spices in the wing sauce.

We went with the half-rack of ribs — there was no way we were going to eat an entire rack with all of the other food we had coming. 

“These are delicious,” gushed Evan, an admitted ribs connoisseur.

He wasn’t kidding — the meat absolutely fell off the bone. Either of our offerings at Prospectors will pair fantastically with their ribs, but we went with a frosty pint of Coastal Evacuation: an absolutely tremendous pairing. Coastal brought out the smokiness and spiciness of their delicious barbecue sauce and intermingled with the flavors of the pork in a surprising way, intensifying the sweetness of the meat. An absolutely A+ pairing.

Their Three Cheese & Bacon burger was delicious. Topped with mayo, thousand island dressing, Swiss, Cheddar, Pepper jack cheese, and bacon strips, the cheese dripped off the burger and mingled with the bacon and liberal smattering of onions. The meat was juicy, thick, and well-spiced. We’d forgotten how well Always Ready pairs with a good burger — there’s really nothing like it. It makes the beef taste fresher, somehow.

Ultimately, what we found at Prospectors Grille & Saloon can be summed up with one word: consistency. Consistently good food. Consistently dependable beer lineup. Consistently strong service. And consistently being an important player in the world of country music.

They’ve definitely earned the right to call themselves “the best country restaurant in the whole Northeast.”

For more information, see Prospectors’ website at www.prospectorsrestaurant.com, or call them at (856) 235-1121. For online reservations, find them on OpenTable, and for takeout, you can find them on Grubhub and Seamless.