SAUGUS — For a few hours, it almost seemed like the good old days.
A stream of cars turned off Route 1, pulling past the famous 68-foot-high cactus into the parking lot. Inside, families sat in booths, where parents told their children for the umpteenth time how mom and dad used to come here on dates.
But Saturday, no steak was served at what was once the busiest restaurant in the country. Instead, after more than 50 years in business, the landmark Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus was packed with scrappers, former competitors, ex-employees, and longtime customers bidding for pieces of the iconic business at auction.
“You’re losing Americana right here,” 37-year-old Michelle Russell said wistfully, as a pack of bidders tore through the kitchen, where she had worked as a cook for four years in the early 1990s, buying up dishes and equipment. “I can’t even describe the loss to the community. Anybody in New England knows the Hilltop, not just locals.”
Its owners cited changing demographics and increased costs when announcing the Hilltop’s October 20 closure. Customers had also complained that the food was going downhill.
But for years, the Hilltop was a local landmark where generation after generation of families came to eat huge portions of steak at a low price, or to buy meat from the butcher shop behind the restaurant.
All around Russell on Saturday morning, kitchen hardware that once served 2.4 million hungry customers every year was sold — dirt cheap. One man bought a working commercial dishwasher for $20; other buyers speculated that the hulking machine was worth at least 10 or 20 times that in scrap metal.
“It was always busy. We were just killing every night,” Russell remembered as she watched the proceedings of the auction, which was organized by John McInnis Auctioneers of Amesbury. “Just to see this whole line that was up and running for sale and empty now, it’s sad.”
Athas Kourkoulis, owner of the nearby Continental restaurant, browsed for items that might be useful in his business’s kitchen.
“Our restaurant is 60 years old, so we competed with the Hilltop for many years,” said Kourkoulis, noting that his business has increased since the Hilltop closed. “It used to be one of the best restaurants in the US. You hate to see it go, but no one wants to run a big family business like this anymore.”
But the morning sale of functional, behind-the-scenes items was just an appetizer before the proverbial steak: an hours-long, marathon auction — of more than a thousand items of memorabilia that once decorated the Western-themed restaurant — which went into the evening.
Ron Gagne came to that auction intent on winning, having picked out items during a Friday preview session.
The 47-year-old Saugus native and resident had gone to the Hilltop on dates with his now-wife in high school, and planned to pick up signs to decorate the game room in his New Hampshire summer home.
“All the people we invite up there are Saugus kids we grew up with, so I thought it would be neat to have something from the Hilltop,” he said.
But Gagne’s changing relationship with the Hilltop is representative of the shift that spelled its end.
“We used to come constantly, but we got married, had kids, and kind of stopped coming,” he said. “The last few years, it was sad, but you could see the end coming.”
Among the hottest items were painted wooden cigar-store statues depicting Native Americans, one of which sold for $4,250. Several paintings of Western action scenes also went for big bucks, as did wooden signs bearing the names of the Hilltop’s dining rooms, which were named after different Western cities.
Angela Luongo, 27, of Saugus, came looking for items to might draw devotees to her collectibles shop in Danvers.
“It was an icon,” she said. “It was probably one of the best restaurants that ever was.”
Luongo had already scored a prize that wasn’t for sale Saturday: one of the huge fiberglass cows that stood in front of the Hilltop for years, bought from a friend with ties to the restaurant.
The cow will go on display at the Little Shop of Treasures in January.
The best-known piece of memorabilia is still awaiting its fate: The famous cactus sign remains a part of the property, which is for sale.
As the auction wound down, winners and those they outbid drifted one by one out of the Hilltop.
Clutching statues, mounted horns, shadow boxes, and other pieces of a lost Massachusetts institution, they scurried through heavy snow to their cars before driving away from the towering, darkened cactus one final time.