Hilltop passed away recently this past October 2013, and the word ‘institution’ hardly describes this fixture of Route 1 in Saugus, Massachusetts. I decided upon hearing of their imminent demise to make a final trek there from western Mass-a long ride but I had to pay respects to a place that I had essentially grown up in.
First a little back story on this place. Owned by Frank Giuffrida, it sits perched on Route 1 South, guarded by life size plastic cows and towered over by a large seventy foot cactus holding the sign. Its parking lot compares favorably with Disneyland, and is over 12 acres in size. Many an elderly customer made the trek back to their vehicle and had to stop for an oxygen break in the real life asphalt hiking trip. Some often had the look of resignation as they seemed close to expiring on the way to the car. The occasional ambulance in the parking lot gave evidence this was more truth than myth.
In the 70’s, this place really hit its stride. Popular in many different circles of Greater Boston society, prices were reasonable enough for almost anyone to come in for a feeding. Lines usually started snaking out the door at 11 am, and one had to procure a magic marker written cardboard number card, and begin the wait. Waits could be as long as an hour as the Bahstan inflected accent rattled throughout the lobby through Eisenhower era speakers.
“Forty fowah, Sioux City, Forty fowah Sioux City. 177, 292 and 63 Carson City…”
Folks listened intently for the long awaited call while gazing at the menagerie of ersatz cows on the lawn. Saturday lunches were the most popular, with buses full of elderly New Englanders from as far away as Maine coming in for the awe inspiring deals. Another frequent denizen were folks who clearly should not be at a steakhouse, impressive girth men and women who tipped the scales in the plus 350 lb territory were always seen lumbering in and out of this place right until the last day.
At 1,300 seats, this was the largest restaurant in America and its numbers go beyond impressive to truly mind boggling. Hilltop’s typical weekly food statistics were legendary: 14,500 pounds of salad, 17,500 pounds of baked potatoes, 3,500 pounds of butter, 4,000 pounds of tomatoes, 8,000 pounds of fish, 10,000 dozen rolls, 20,500 pounds of beef and umpteen doggie bags. Per Week. (Three million doggie bags per year) That is 10 tons of beef per week served up as mostly their famed Sirloin Tips, the meal of choice for many on Saturday lunches. Filet Mignon, Chopped Sirloin and other cuts of steak were also faves, and many indulged in fish choices on Friday in this mainly Catholic neck of northern Boston. Friday alone saw an average of one and three quarters tons of fish served for lunch and dinner. (thats almost 3800 pounds of fish, folks) Saturdays saw an average of 7,800 meals served in one day.
The iconic placemats showed a cow, with dotted lines dividing it up into different cuts of meat in a fashion that would give a budding vegetarian either a nudge to go lightly or perhaps provide the fuel for nightmares unending as they ran full speed towards veganism. Popularity increased into the 80’s, as the restaurant was name checked several times on the TV show Cheers, albeit under the code name ‘The Hungry Heifer’, Norm’s favorite dining destination.
Once inside, two huge rooms in rustic midwest decor were on either side, Sioux City and Carson City, and each one was larger than most restaurants in seating. Dodge City and Kansas City were the upstairs and downstairs bars. As a youngster, most of the action in these rooms eluded my attention, but they were always overflowing with customers and raucous with laughter. My parents would rarely let us eat in either of these rooms. But…there were some signs spilling into the main rooms of this prolonged Mad Men behavior as business types threw down their four shot martinis in frightening quantities. Their drinks were legendarily over poured and LARGE. I found this out in the late 80’s and early 90’s as I started to attend regularly with my friends. A double scotch would come in a ten to twelve oz juice glass filled nearly to the brim, no ice. Gimlets that took quite a while to get down, hefty double shots. Martinis so large that you could drown in one if you fell asleep. And fall asleep people did. Many times in the bar I witnessed customers asleep on their tables, the bar, slumped in the corner of the room in a chair, heads nodding and bobbing, or just plain unconscious. While this was mostly unnoticed back in the day, I found later that this behavior was more the norm than the exception. One person eating alone next to my family was having trouble focusing on both his salad and third martini at the same time. When dinner arrived, he turned green and fuzzily asked the waitress to wrap it to go for him, uneaten. He wobbled precariously out the door to try his luck on Route 1. (This stretch of Route 1 is famous for being one of the most dangerous highways in America, and also for the most incidents of people driving the wrong way on the highway. Twice in high school I had a car whiz past me full speed head-on in the high speed lane, blissfully unaware they were on the wrong side of the divided road).
The waitresses were also a fixture of this place. They were a notoriously closed knit group, and getting a job waitressing there was like getting a job doing announcements at Fenway Park. The list to get in was huge, and the turnover was virtually nil. This gave waitresses a certain leeway in behavior that most restaurants would frown upon. Mostly made up of late thirties to late fifties in age, bleached blonde and permed, they could pretty much do whatever they saw fit. If ignoring you was what pleased them, then you were in for a long dining experience. Muzak quietly pumped through the house at an almost unnoticeable level of volume, but with a subtle constant 130 BPM rhythm that encouraged your subconscious to eat quickly and get the hell out so someone else could have your seat. Few noticed this trick.
Sadly, this place started to slip in the late 90’s, and by the turn of the millennium, saw a downturn in business as fancier and hipper eating places began to crop up on Route 1, offering a wide range of haute cuisine to the nouveau riche transplants that began to filter into the suburbs of the formerly stolid blue collar towns. Steak and potatoes no longer seemed to wow the crowd like they once did, and the cavernous dining rooms took on the appearance of scenes from the abandoned hotel ballroom in the Shining, as folks stayed away in droves. I popped in a few times during this period, and while enjoying everything, especially their secret recipe house Italian dressing you could purchase on the way out, a bit of the luster had worn off.
The news that this landmark location would be closing in October of 2013 hit the community hard. The given date of Sunday the 20th made people come out the woodwork to pay their final respects. New staff had to be hired to accommodate this unexpected influx, and the management lamented that had there been this level of interest a year or so ago, they wouldn’t be in this fix. But, come out of the woodwork they did, as news reports of huge crowds and huge waits filtered through online and broadcast sources. Estimated wait times of up to three hours made some leave unfed. (I was quoted a 2.5-3 hour wait, actual time was about an hour) The food? Well first the menu was a poorly photocopied print out (“we lost 145 menus last night to customers” said the waitress) My steak tips rivaled the best I had ever eaten in the 70’s, an overflowing mountain of steak on the oval plate, cooked to perfection. My parents likewise had steak tips, but theirs was a tiny and overcooked portion, and about half the size of mine. I was glad they could still hit the high notes in their death throes, but uneven meals had been a common complaint throughout the last decade.
In addition to the menus, many fans had taken it upon themselves to liberate their own chosen souvenirs. A cow had disappeared from the front lawn and shown up on eBay. How this eluded local police is still a mystery, but its starting bid price of over $1000.00 kept interest low. Local cops were stationed in the lobby to make sure larger items stayed on the walls etc. as some important items hanging over their castle sized fireplace were no longer there. The wooden Indian had its own personal guard in the lobby. Highball and gimlet glasses bearing the logo brought prices in excess of 25.00 per on eBay. Our waitress gladly provided us a handful of the paper cow placemats to take home, these soon were grabbing nine bucks a pop on eBay. (mine are carefully preserved in laminate plastic to horrify vegetarian friends that come over for dinner) By Sunday they had long run out of these popular and instantly recognizable souvenirs.
On the way out, hot off the press souvenir Hilltop shirts were being hawked to recoup some money before the banks got ahold of the joint. (why it took them until four days before they closed to figure out this is downright perplexing)
Perhaps someone with a wad of cash will notice all of the traffic this place generated in a short two week span, and like Frank Giuffrida, who back in the day watched the volume of traffic on Route 1 and thought ‘hey this is a good spot for a restaurant’, will take the leap to populate the front lawn with life-size cows and fire up the seventy foot neon cactus once more. I will be first in line.