Some expanses of American highway were preordained as incubators for notable roadside attractions, such as Interstate 94 in North Dakota, legendary Route 66 and U.S. Route 1 north of Boston. The latter is a cluttered stretch of asphalt that for approximately 10 miles is festooned with more Americana kitsch than you can shake a giant thermometer at, including a prehistoric orange theropod who has been guarding a miniature golf course since 1958; a smaller-scale version of Pisa’s leaning tower; a dry-docked schooner that was formerly a restaurant but now houses a mall; a haunted former mental hospital; an ice cream parlor in a historic former shoe factory from the 18th century; and, a colossal tiki hut serving as a Polynesian restaurant. At one of the highest points of this retro ribbon of jocosity stands a behemoth that literally towers above the others – the mammoth saguaro cactus that casts its shadow over the rambling Hilltop Steakhouse.
Famed restaurateur Frank Giuffrida bought a nightclub appropriately named the Hilltop Lounge in 1961 and converted it into a steakhouse with a capacity of 125 people. Over the years it has been recognized as one of the one of the busiest and highest-grossing restaurants in the U.S., in part by keeping prices moderate but serving a high volume of diners (the restaurant estimates that to date they’ve served over 50 million meals). The statuesque succulent that marks the location was built of Fiberglas and miles of neon lighting in 1964 at the then astronomical cost of around $68,000; although various estimates put the cactus anywhere between 30 and 80 feet, the official measurement is a boast-worthy 68 feet tall. The sign is visible for miles, particularly at night when its radioactive green glow lights up the sky over Saugus, Massachusetts, but upkeep has proved an expensive venture and it’s not uncommon for the sign to read something along the lines of “HILLTO STE K H — USE”. While the sign continues to honor its erector, Frank Giuffrida, the late founder sold the restaurant back in 1988, which at one time was the cornerstone of an empire which extended into several New England states.
Equally as amusing as the cactus is the herd of Fiberglas cattle that graze on the narrow strip of lawn on the highway side of the restaurant. The beefy bovines used to roam free in the meager pasture, but have been cemented down after years of repeated rustling. It wasn’t uncommon for an urban cowboy to lasso one of the critters and drag it mercilessly south down Route 1; at one point a cow was pilfered by the Hacks at MIT and placed unceremoniously atop the Great Breast of Knowledge – word is that the retrieved cow sported a cap and gown and a diploma for a spell.
In its heyday, diners waiting in queues that rivaled the line for Space Mountain were handed numbers while they awaited being beckoned to the huge western-themed dining rooms – the loudspeaker blared constantly with announcements such as, “Number 132, number 65, number 102 to Sioux City” as if announcing that the stagecoach was departing. Diners could be summoned to Carson City, Virginia City, Sioux City, Dodge City, Kansas City or Santa Fe, although in recent times some of the dining rooms have been closed to accommodate function facilities. If you’ve invested the time to observe Giuffrida’s western gastronomic adventure first hand, you might as well go full tilt boogie and treat yourself to the enigmatic New England phenomenon known locally as steak tips (alternately sirloin tips). Steak tips are small chunks of beef cut from loin flap meat and are generally marinated and grilled or roasted, and although there are probably a handful of eateries in the Boston area that offer superlative versions of the dish, you won’t be able to sit in a frontier town beneath the shadow of a herculean cactus while you enjoy them.
Hilltop’s version of the steak tips come to the table hot, juicy and pink in the middle; the meat is incredibly tender thanks to the scientific marvel of marination and every bite is a morsel of bovine ecstasy. An order of steak tips with rolls and a potato and rolls will set you back less than a Double Eagle, but you can get these savory chunks of cow flesh for about $12 off the lunch menu. Fortunately, you don’t have to pack a bankroll like Diamond Jim Brady to upgrade to their signature 14-ounce rib eye, or even their 22 ounce Porterhouse, which is the most expensive menu item at thirty bucks. If you’re so inclined to grill any of the cuts available in the restaurant, there’s an expansive butcher shop at the back of the building, although it is currently closed for renovations.
The clientele appears to be regulars who have been flocking to Hilltop since it opened in the 1960s including a few ghosts, but it’s worth the effort if you’re cruising Route 1 on a pilgrimage to find roadside America.