With the Hilltop Steak House tragically shuttering,
we paid homage to the gaudiest strip this side of Reno
BY CHRIS FARAONE | @FARA1
& DAN MCCARTHY | @ACUTALPROOF
INTRO BY MARC HURWITZ | @HIDDENBOSTON
PHOTOS BY DEREK KOUYOUMJIAN | @DEREKIMAGE
While the demise of the Hilltop Steak House amplifies the death rattle heard along Route 1’s legacy culinary scene, it’s not all bad news. The Ship has a restaurant operating within it once again, while Prince Pizzeria still serves all-you-can-eat pies. Kowloon continues to seat what seems like millions of people each day, and The Continental hasn’t lost its touch for whipping up delicious popovers.
At the same time, non-food cheesiness does still abound of course, from the no-tell murderer motels lurking here and there, to the huge dinosaur guarding a miniature golf course, and sketchy-looking businesses that seemingly sell things few people need. Slowly, though, the big chains are taking over, threatening to turn Route 1 into another faceless and commercial suburban strip.
Since the story broke about the Hilltop’s closing, more than a few people have said it won’t be missed, claiming it to be outdated and irrelevant, with food that lacked inspiration. Okay, fine. While it may be true that the restaurant itself was stuck in a time warp, and that its food hardly held a candle to regional foodie havens like Craigie on Main in Cambridge, it will nevertheless be missed. It’s a connection to our local past and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. And Route 1 will never be the same because of it.
Upon entrance, an inviting and bespectacled old woman enters our orbit, “Welcome to Kowloon. I’m very happy you came here.” It’s hardly our first visit to the grand suburban Vegas-worthy temple, so we know enough to order up some boneless spare ribs, crab Rangoon, and sugary drinks in hilarious Tiki mugs–Singapore Slings, Mai Tais, Zombies. We commandeer a row of hightop tables by the bar, and immediately start playing Keno so as to blend in with the throng of septuagenarians drinking across from us. Our photographer Derek snaps a live-action shot of the waitress, Denise, and she bugs out, makes him delete it. Dan gets a text from his mom, who saw a masterful pic of the Kowloon facade he put on Instagram; it turns out this was a go-to spot during her halcyon days as a young Woburn pistol out for a night with the girls. A mutual friend walks in–he knew that we were in the area–and tells us there’s a three-and-a-half hour wait at the Hilltop. Time to jet.
SAKE JAPANESE RESTAURANT
The rest of us are seated in a traditional Japanese cushion pit with our shoes comfortably removed by the time Derek finishes unlacing his knee-high combat boots, which he’s religiously worn since his days growing up around the North Shore and hosting a death metal show on the Salem State radio station. As suggested by the restaurant’s name, we request a decanter of cold sake, plus a round of Sapporos to knock back the rice booze. This place is quaint and cozy–especially compared with neighboring giants like Kowloon. We order fatty tuna and sea urchin, the drinking base of champions, and the super cute Kimono-clad server asks grinningly if we are doing “sake bombs.” We ask if the guys who typically order “sake bombs” by name have barbed-wire tattoos and shaved chests, and she stares at us blankly. Turns out we’re the meatheads though; as we stand up to leave, two out of four of us confess to momentarily thinking that we somehow lost our shoes.
This is new turf or all of us–the vintage wood grain décor with hints of non-ironic art deco highlights, the timbre of glasses clinking behind idle chatter from a cast of regulars. Our publisher asks the bartender what they “do,” and he answers with a deadpan, “Martinis, and Manhattans.” Chris removes his hat–it just feels like the right thing to do–and we begin to assimilate, but he then orders a “Caucasian,” causing the bartender, Frank, to laugh in his face upon discovering that he was trying to coolly order a white Russian. Lebowski references are out of place here; at the Continental, cocktails come in classic 6-ounce highballs, a call back to when drinks were a spirit and a mixer and ice. We speak with a neighborhood guy named Al (see Hilltop Memories with Al below) about his old Hilltop memories, and hit the parking lot. As we’re piling into the Uber, flanked by our driver Ahmed and Derek flickering the flash on his camera, a pack of rowdy suburbanites swoops in. Despite the Red Sox being in the middle of a playoff game in Detroit, one particularly aggressive woman in a sequined blouse sticks her head in the cab and hollers, “EH!?!? IS THAT BIG PAPI IN THEAH?!?!”
If there’s any sign that other Route 1 establishments with local roots will buck closing trends and keep from falling off the hilltop, it’s that a Santarpio’s–the 100-plus year old East Boston-based pizzeria–now stands in the location of a former Bennigan’s. No major chain or franchise could possibly pack this much authentic attitude: the bartender first treats us like the outsiders we are, then warms up after concluding that we’re harmless; locals ogle the Red Sox game together, talking smack to the flatscreens in unison; the diligent and friendly woman working the Keno machine has purple and silver hair. Now the centers of attention, what with our photographer and drunkenness and all, we’re approached by Josephine Santarpio herself, who gives us a tour of the spot’s mile-long barbecue pit. Her son, a fifth generation Santarpio, feeds us each a slab of their legendary lamb tips, coercing Chris into eating meat for the first time in months. He regrets nothing.
THE GOLDEN BANANA
It’s hard to pass a sign that says “The Golden Banana” without stopping in. This place is famous and for good reason–it’s more or less the closest ass oasis outside of stripper-deprived Boston. With just two sinner’s dens left in the Hub, both of which are fairly cramped and pricey, the Banana is an obvious attraction for anyone who wants to kick their legs out and enjoy more than one spectacle at a time. We do just that–first a Russian girl, looking slightly bored, dances for a gentleman across the stage; she’s followed by the type of tattooed Asian vixen who you leave a wife for. We drink Dos Equis and shoot Jameson, and try ignoring the Linkin Park or whatever schlock it is that’s polluting the moment. A gorgeous Latina removes one of our hats and has her way with it. Suddenly, nothing else matters.
The strip club scene is getting old already, but we’d be silly to pass this place, its mini-mart exterior giving it the same look of an actual meat market. Upon arrival, a small gaggle of punk customers out front tries to jerk us into paying them a cover, but calls off the gag once they discover that we’re bigger, drunker, and probably even dumber than they are. Though not exactly renowned as the classiest joint around, the Cabaret is quite comfortable, with a bar you’d almost want to hang at if there weren’t naked women dancing in the background. Our bartender, who a manager tells us has been there since the dawn of skin clubs, is appropriately rude, but it’s pretty awesome, like if the waiters at Dick’s Last Resort legitimately hated your guts. The strippers realize that none of us are interested in lap dances, and suddenly turn extra cold. We bounce.
HILLTOP STEAK HOUSE
It’s been reported that some things have gone missing from the Hilltop in the past week–plates, menus, you name it. It wasn’t us; by the time we showed up near the end of our tour, they were closed for the evening. Since we’d already asked Marc Hurwitz to eulogize the place, we’d simply hoped to hug the bar a final time. Nevertheless, we exited the Navigator for one last frolic in the front yard, to ride and party with the lawn cattle that local high school students have lusted after for generations. There are several other people out here with us, including a man wearing a cowboy hat. We pose in more obscene positions than the sex scene in A Clockwork Orange for some farewell photos under the magnificent neon sign, and ship out to our final destination.
As is often the routine at Hooters, the Saugus location has an impressively hot staff of women from all walks of life, the lot of whom are having difficulty pretending they can stand the sight of our drunken Neanderthals asses. After five-plus hours of drinking, our photographer is still attempting to engage in philosophical chats with everyone we meet, forgetting that the strippers only listened because that’s what they get paid to do. It’s all in delightfully tacky taste, and as such we’ve a final feat to accomplish that involves a funnel full of light beer and some pint glasses. The beautiful and busty waitress marvels at our inability to work the contraption, but soon after, she applauds the speed and agility with which we drain each and every drop. Truth be told, we had more than a little help from a middle-aged bachelorette party at the next table. We learned a lot on our pilgrimage to Route 1, but this you can take to the bank–don’t open the whiskey floodgates with a group of women savage enough to have Girl’s Night on a Wednesday. They’ll drink you under the table every time.
After a smooth ride back into Boston, we pull into our old Dig standby, JJ Foley’s on East Berkeley St., for a nightcap that we don’t need in the least. While filling local barflys in on our adventure, we’re reminded that the very pub that we’re standing in has been here for more than a century. Like the Route 1 strip or any other seasoned destination, Foley’s has weathered everything from paralyzing storms to dark depressions. Yet after our trip through the silliest mile in America, it was as comforting and reassuring as coming home.
EATS: HILLTOP STEAK HOUSE (1947-2013)
Dan is a freelance journalist and has written for publications including Vice, Esquire, the Daily Beast, Fast Company, Pacific Standard, MEL, Leafly, Thrillist, and DigBoston.