By Chris Stevens
The Daily Item of Lynn
---- — SAUGUS — Julie Mitchell said she remembers the long lines that wrapped around the outside of the building as people waited to get into the Hilltop Steak House.
“It was crazy,” said Mitchell, now a Saugus selectman, of those nights when two-hour waits were the norm and prospective patrons kept watch over a herd of motionless plastic cows as traffic rumbled past on Route 1 southbound.
“I used to seat people in Sioux City,” she recalled, invoking the name of one of the restaurant’s cavernous western-themed dining rooms. “I was a hostess there when I was in high school.”
That was in Hilltop’s heyday in the 1980s. In recent years the waiting lines have grown shorter to nonexistent, and finally an era came to pass on Wednesday: The management of Hilltop Steak House announced the landmark Route 1 restaurant will close Sunday, Oct. 20.
“It’s like a part of my life is over,” said Selectman Steve Castinetti. “I’ve been eating there since I was a little kid.”
After 52 years, the cows along Route 1 that grazed in the shadow of a giant cactus will be put out to pasture. Or maybe up for auction.
“It is with great sadness that we announce the closing of the Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus at the close of business Sunday, October 20, 2013,” states a letter signed simply, “The Management of Hilltop Steakhouse.”
In 1961 Frank Giuffrida, who died in 2004, opened the restaurant that became known for thick steaks, long lines and a western motif that included dining rooms named for train or stagecoach stops like Dodge City, Virginia City, Kansas City and, of course, Sioux City, “population” 324.
Hilltop opened it’s doors just about a decade behind Kowloon and the same year as Prince Pizzeria landed on the scene. State Rep. Donald Wong, who along with this family owns the Kowloon, said they, along with The Continental and Prince Pizzeria, represent the old guard on Route 1.
“It’s always sad to see a family owned business go out, and it’s one of the landmarks,” he said.
Wong joked that people used to say airplane pilots would use the giant green cactus as a landmark when headed to Logan Airport.
“It will be interesting to see what goes in there,” he added.
Town Manager Scott Crabtree said the family has made no mention of a redevelopment plan but he has reached out to them and offered to assist with any transition. It was unclear Thursday how many people would be put out of work.
“As a kid my aunt used to take me there every Monday for lunch,” Crabtree said. “I always ordered a hamburger and fries and they would put lots of cherries in my coke. “It’s a big loss for the town and personally.”
The letter from management states the closure is the result of a dramatic change in the volume of business, despite “tremendous” efforts to overcome it.
“The continued change in the demographics of our customer base, increased competition and the increased cost to run this fabulous landmark has been too great to overcome,” the letter reads. “We therefore have no choice but to close our restaurant.”
Selectman Stephen Horlick called it a sad part of Route 1’s changing landscape.
Former Saugonian Ray Lawrence said he, too, was sad to hear the news.
“I live in New Hampshire now and I tell people I’m from Saugus right near the Hilltop and they always say, ‘Oh, I know where that is,’” he said. “People all over the country know the Hilltop.”
Selectman Chairman Michael Serino called news sad but unsurprising.
“I’m not surprised they’re closing. I’m only surprised at how fast they did it and with no warning,” he said. “They sent us an email at 5:41 last night.”
Mitchell said the loss will also be felt in the support that Hilltop has provided over the years by sponsoring things like Shadow Day at the high school, various hockey banquets and its participation in The Taste for Education fundraiser.
In her basement, Julie Mitchell has a small piece of Hilltop memorabilia. At one time Mitchell owned a ceramics studio and she produced small replicas of the cactus sign, complete with Giuffrida’s signature.
“They sold them in the gift shop and there was one on every table,” she said, adding that she still has the catcus mold in her basement.