Saturday, October 19, 2013

Adieu, Hilltop.

Here is some sad news from Massachusetts: the Hilltop Steakhouse closes its doors tomorrow after 52 years in business on Route 1 in the North Shore town of Saugus. Fittingly described as "iconic" and "treasured," the Hilltop enjoyed a devoted following among several generations of Bay State residents. Writing this week in the Boston Herald, Roger Berkowitz described the closing of the Hilltop as "akin to learning about a favorite elderly relative passing away. You kind of knew it was inevitable, but it took a toll nonetheless." News of the Hilltop's imminent demise has led many loyal patrons to return this week for one last meal at the restaurant, producing wait times of up to three hours and leading the manager to quip, "If it was like this all the time we wouldn't be closing." Eager for souvenirs of a beloved eatery, some patrons have been making off with menus, plates, and other items, a few of which have appeared for sale on eBay.

In its heyday, the Hilltop Steakhouse was the busiest and top-grossing restaurant in the United States, serving over two million customers annually and raking in $27 million in a year. What made the Hilltop so popular? A 2010 report from the blog Eccentric Roadside provides an explanation:
. . . In 1961, restaurateur Frank Giuffrida wanted all of Massachusetts to know he was opening a western-themed steak house, so he erected a 50-foot neon cactus in the style of old Freemont Street Las Vegas to beckon all carnivores near and far, along with a restaurant building resembling a corral and life-size plastic cows grazing in front. The place became a sure-fire bonanza, serving three million customers annually in their enormous dining rooms named Kansas City, Dodge City and Carson City. Customers stampeded for the huge portions at low prices and a wait of an hour or more was not uncommon, with a regionally accented lady announcing over the loudspeaker "numba 44 for Dawge City" to get you to your table. . . .
As Eccentric Roadside's editors conclude, the Hilltop was "a time warp, a reminder of a bygone era when eating a ton of meat and starch meant you were living the good life and your place mat showed you what part of the cow you were eating." The Hilltop's stand-out status is all the more impressive given the concentration of characterful dining establishments that surrounded it; as another blogger once wrote, "Even on Route 1 north of Boston, home of kitsch eateries like the giant pagoda Chinese spot, the seafood restaurant shaped like a ship, and the Italian joint with The Leaning Tower of Pisa out front, the Hilltop was special." To get a sense of what made the place so special, take a look at Eccentric Roadside's selection of photographs capturing the distinctive ambience of the Hilltop, from the giant neon cactus and herd of plastic cows outside to the massive 'Old West' dining rooms and generous serving sizes.

Given the longstanding success of the Hilltop's formula of large portions, low prices, and an appealingly kitschy dining experience, why is this venerable restaurant closing? As reported by Garrett Quinn in an article for MassLive, the reasons for the decline of the Hilltop are depressingly familiar:
The last decade . . . has not been kind to the restaurant, as competition has steadily increased along the Route 1 North sprawl. At one point there were less than a dozen restaurants in the area around the Hilltop, today there are over 60. Doward says the competition, along with the Hilltop's aging loyal customers, has hurt because the national chains that have sprung up have advertising and promotional capabilities that they do not.
In other words, the closing of the Hilltop can be put down to the same broad trends that sounded the death knell for many other once-successful locally-owned restaurants which proved unable to compete in a changing business environment. Though I understand the reasons for this quite well, I can't help but mourn the passing of the Hilltop in the same way that I mourned the closing of Thad's Steakhouse in New Bedford. Unlike Thad's, the Hilltop was not a place that I visited very often, largely because the restaurant was very far from where I grew up. The long drive to Saugus made each visit to the Hilltop a special event, timed to coincide with a family milestone or else planned as a stop on the way to a family vacation in New Hampshire or a visit to relatives in Maine. Though I regret that I didn't have the opportunity to visit the Hilltop one last time following the announcement of its closing, I am happy to have known her in her glory days, and I bid her a fond farewell. AMDG.


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