SAUGUS — Phil Mercurio, 79 and still a hearty eater, was polishing off his Salisbury steak as he recalled the days when the crowds spilled out the front door of the Hilltop Steakhouse and into the parking lot behind. Hundreds of diners would line up alongside the life-size decorative cows as they waited to hear their number and seating area (“87 Kansas City!”) called.
Romantic outings and special family occasions took place here, decade after decade, surrounded by western-themed kitsch that made a night out seem like a trip to Disney’s Frontierland and a good steak worth the drive from miles away.
“The only time you could get seated reasonably quickly was around 4 o’clock, between the lunch and dinner shifts,” said Mercurio, looking around at the half-empty dining room a bit sadly.
He and his tablemates had a lot to digest Thursday, having heard that the Hilltop — a bastion of marbled beef and big appetites — will close its doors on Oct. 20 after 52 years. Its demise, although not entirely unexpected by longtime patrons and town officials, will end a storied chapter in restaurant history, and is already causing many to wonder what will become of the steakhouse’s fiberglass cows and towering neon cactus sign, fixtures of the Route 1 landscape.
There were no tears in Mercurio’s eyes, but Susan Henderson, a Hilltop waitress for the past 35 years, choked back a tear or two as she told of getting the news of the closing on Wednesday, along with other staff members whom she called “my family.”
“I was shocked and definitely sad about it,” said Henderson. “Maybe it’s the economy, I don’t know. But it seems like there are too many choices now,” she said, noting that once there were but a handful of popular family restaurants scattered along Route 1. Now nearly 90 vie for customers’ dollars and loyalty.
As she wiped down an empty table, Henderson admitted she was “feeling a little melancholy” while waiting on customers who had become old friends. “I have to check my sadness at the door and put my smile on,” Henderson said. Still, she added, “Thanks to Hilltop, I have my home, my happy marriage, I put my sons through college. And now I’ll have my memories.”
Notification of the closing came in a letter earlier this week from the restaurant’s owner, High Country Investor Inc., to the Saugus Board of Selectmen.
“We would like to express our sincere gratitude to all departments of the town of Saugus and its wonderful residents for their support and patronage,” the letter said. “We hope to see you before closing.”
According to Saugus economic developer Robert Luongo, the letter did not catch town officials by surprise, although the timing may have. The butcher shop attached to the restaurant has been closed for months, he noted. The long lines of hungry customers disappeared long ago. There had been rumors for years, too, that the owners would close the struggling restaurant soon and seek an alternative use for the 11-acre parcel.
The next step, says Luongo, is setting up a meeting between the property owners and the town to discuss future plans. He hopes the site will be redeveloped for mixed-use under a plan that could include office, hotel, and retail space. The meeting could take place as early as next week, he said.
Ah, but what about the cows and cactus?
Luongo laughed. “Maybe we should put the cows in front of Town Hall,” he replied.
More seriously, he added, “We all realize the Hilltop holds a lot of memories for generations, and we’ll try to preserve something of that. And the sign is truly an iconic image, even better than the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square.”
The Hilltop was opened in 1961 by Frank Giuffrida, a butcher whose name is still emblazoned on the cactus sign outside. Originally designed to accommodate 125 diners, the restaurant expanded in the late 1960s as customers were drawn to its winning mix of reasonable prices, plentiful portions, attentive service, and Wild West décor.
In its heyday the Hilltop served more than 20,000 customers a week and grossed an estimated $27 million a year, before a combination of expansion and recession took its toll on the business. Giuffrida opened a second steakhouse in Braintree, in 1991. He sold his stake in the business a quarter-century ago. Giuffrida died in 2003, and the Braintree restaurant closed four years later.
Saugus head selectman Michael Serino said he had been notified about the closing by property owner Dennis January, whom he has never met, in an e-mail Wednesday. While not entirely surprised, Serino said he was most concerned for employees who had had little chance to prepare.
Having known Giuffrida personally, said Serino, “Things changed once big investors took over and lost that personal touch,” said Serino. “I knew business was slow, but it’s still sad.”
For diners who showed up Thursday as news of the closing spread, any thoughts of business missteps and tough economic times took a back seat to other memories of perhaps simpler, happier times.
“I’ve been coming here all my life, so it’s pretty sad,” said Louise Hoyt of Stoneham, a bartender by trade, as she packed the remains of her chicken sandwich into a doggie bag. “It’s going to be missed, that’s for sure.”
Juanita Phillips of Lynn, who had been having lunch with Hoyt, wondered what would become of all the pictures on the walls — and cows outside — once the place shut down. At a nearby table, Anthony Bruno, 89, and his longtime East Boston buddy, Peter Mastrangelo, 88, settled into a booth and dug into salads.
“Eighteen of us used to come here for lunch together, but now there are only two of us left,” Mastrangelo said. “We had an idea this closing was imminent, but we didn’t know. We don’t even believe in Santa Claus anymore.”