Photos by Derek Kouyoumjian
Assuming you haven’t been residing under a large rock or in some kind of hermetically sealed vacuum, you’ve no doubt heard the Hilltop Steak House is indeed joining a slew of other landmark (and not-so-landmark) restaurants that have chosen or been forced to close along Route 1 in Saugus over the years. And on October 20, it went the way of Augustine’s, Weylu’s, and so many others that are but a memory these days. But this one really seems to be big news. Perhaps because it’s one of the last remaining relics of the unique old school eateries peppering this fascinating–and totally outdated–thoroughfare.
So what made Hilltop the most popular restaurant in the Boston area (and arguably the country, at one point) and why is it now closing?
The first part of this question undoubtedly has something to do with America’s love for cheesiness and kitschiness, of which Route 1 used to be in rich abundance of. This relatively short stretch of road once had such classic culinary slices of Americana as the Diamond Head, Valle’s Steak House, Full of Bull, Godfried’s, the Red Coach Grill (later morphing into El Torito’s), and the aforementioned Augustine’s, where diners were serenaded by an elderly woman playing sappy songs on an organ as patrons filled their plates with mountains of pasta from the buffet. And of course Weylu’s, which resembled a emperor’s mansion built during one of the Chinese dynasties rather than a place to get greasy egg rolls (it now sits a dilapidated and neglected husk of its former self looking like Tom Hanks’ creepy neighbors’ house in The Burbs).
But the Hilltop topped them all when it came pure unadulterated schlock. With its fiberglass cows, ridiculously huge cactus signage, rooms named after cities out west, and lines of hungry patrons stretching along its long porch waiting to be called in to the Kansas City Room–this place simply had an atmosphere not found anywhere else in the region. And the food was as big as the atmosphere, ignoring (or perhaps destroying) the rule of “never eat anything bigger than your head” with such items as name-befitting iceberg salads, enormous onion “cactus flowers,” and the popular 18-ounce sirloin. The drinks, while substantial, were not exactly manifested by world-class mixologists, but no one seemed to care. Even the massive doggie bags were memorable, often containing enough leftovers for two or three more meals at home.
The reason behind the Hilltop’s closing is a bit complicated.
Part of it is seemingly attributed to changing demographics and tastes, with old-timey restaurants increasingly falling out of favor with local denizens each year. While new openings featuring (ironically) “retro” atmosphere and food gain popularity, no-frills delis such as Godfried’s, over-the-top Polynesian places such as Weylu’s, and cheap steak joints like Valle’s have essentially vanished from Route 1, swapped for Chipotle, Panera, Starbucks, and other large quick-service chains now being found along the strip. And the term “quick-service” should be noted here, as the Hilltop and some of the other now-closed spots were anything but quick-service eateries. Instead, they were places where families and groups could enjoy the company of others with no time constraints, as opposed to soulless spots flanked with pre-fab ephemera fit for shoveling and gulping down food before hurrying out in our overworked, over-stimulated modern lives.
So raise a glass and shed a tear.
Because it’s all over now.
1947: Visionary butcher Frank Guiffrida buys Saugus property where Hilltop will eventually be built.
1961: In the belief that customers want low prices, large portions, and outrageous atmosphere, Giuffrida opens the Hilltop, which becomes the first restaurant of its enormous kind on the Saugus strip.
1983-1988: According to the trade magazine Restaurants and Institutions, Hilltop does more business than any other restaurant in America. “In 1986,” they note, “the restaurant alone had estimated sales of $26.9 million. Hilltop executives say that total sales last year were about $45 million.”
1988: Hilltop announces plans to franchise, and for “satellite” locations to be created by a new company controlled by Beverly Farms businessman John Swansburg. The strategy fails soon after, and Guifridda sells a major interest in the brand to Swansburg.
1994: Dick Monfort of the Monfort Beef goliath becomes Hilltop’s main supplier. Flagship Saugus location sold to High Country Investors of Colorado.
2006: Lawsuit forces corporate owners to pay $2.5 million to former waitresses who were cheated out of tips.
2007: Hilltop in Braintree closes, auctions off iconic dining room items, cows, cactus–some for more than $1000 apiece.
2013: Landmark Hilltop in Saugus closes. Another one bites the sawdust.