SAUGUS — After the final filet, sirloins, and other signature meats are cooked on Sunday at Hilltop Steak House, Saugus will start to prepare for life without the cactus.
The iconic restaurant — with its 68-foot-tall neon cactus sign that lights up Route 1 like a birthday cake — will close after a 52-year reign as the king of steaks.
And Hilltop’s closing could also bring something even rarer than a good T-bone: 13.3 acres of prime land in the heart of Route 1.
With good visibility, and a lot of frontage along the highway, Hilltop could fetch a lot of interest if the property were to hit the market, a real estate analyst said. An estimated 100,000 vehicles per day zip along Route 1 in Saugus, which has long been a destination for national restaurant and retail chains.
“It will be a very sought-after site, I would imagine,” said Justin Smith, a senior associate in retail investment sales in the Boston office of Cushing & Wakefield, a national real estate company. “There are few retail parcels available in the Saugus Route 1 corridor, but none are in as direct of a location as the Hilltop.”
‘It’s a special parcel. Any reuse will have to be sensitive to the neighborhood. At the same time, we don’t want to stifle any ideas.’
High Country Investor Inc. owns the Hilltop Steak House business and real estate on Route 1 south, according to town property records.
Dennis January, a principal owner, was not available for comment at the restaurant last week.
In a letter e-mailed to town officials last week, Hilltop management announced the restaurant will close at the end of business on Sunday.
The letter, which cited changing customer tastes, also noted “the increased cost to run this fabulous landmark has been too great to overcome.”
Saugus — and many Route 1 motorists — will miss the Hilltop and its herd of plastic cattle on the front lawn. But redevelopment of the property could bring new economic opportunity to town, an official said.
“I’m not sure ranch-style steak houses are in vogue anymore,” said Robert Luongo, who took over in June as the town’s economic development director.
The 70,000-square-foot restaurant, with Western-themed dining rooms with names like Sioux City, sits on 4 acres. The parking lot takes up 7.3 acres, and 2 acres at the rear of the property are zoned residential, creating a buffer between the restaurant and homes along Forest Street.
Current zoning could limit any future reuse, Luongo said.
“It’s unusual to see a parcel split into multiple zones. It could create a unique situation up there,” he said.
Luongo said the town already had planned to review zoning along Route 1, to help encourage new growth.
Hilltop now could now be a focus of that review.
“It’s a special parcel,” said Luongo. “Any reuse will have to be sensitive to the neighborhood. At the same time, we don’t want to stifle any ideas.”
Hotels, office space, and, of course, restaurants and retailers are now allowed by the zoning, Luongo said.
Other former large restaurant properties on Route 1 have been redeveloped into retail centers. The old Caruso’s Diplomat, for example, was torn down, and replaced with the Shops at Saugus, which includes Trader Joe’s and Starbucks.
But Luongo is not sold on the idea of a retail center at Hilltop, should the property be made available for redevelopment.
“How many retailers can you have on Route 1?” he said. “I think we’d like to see a more substantial development there, maybe something with a hotel.”
But, he stressed, the property owners have not yet told the town of any reuse plans. And, beyond zoning, the town could have little say in any potential reuse.
“Whatever happens is going to be market-driven,” he said. “And we understand that.”
Hilltop is among Saugus’s largest restaurant taxpayers. The property is assessed at $8.2 million, and paid property taxes totaling $176,578.35 for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, according to the town assessor’s office.
A hint of Hilltop’s demise may have come last year, when the owners requested a property tax abatement for the town, claiming the property was overvalued.
After a review, Saugus assessors agreed to lower the valuation of the restaurant parcel, to $7 million from $8.6 million, according to assessing records.
Still, that should not diminish any potential sale of the property, said Ron Keohan, the town’s deputy assessor.
“They proved to us that the valuation we assigned was slightly higher than what it should be,” Keohan said.
The adjustment was in line with slight declines experienced by other Route 1 commercial properties amid a period of slow economic growth, Keohan said.
“For the most part, Route 1 is holding its value,” he said. “Some of the big properties had a slight reduction, but nothing that would make you say, ‘Oh, Route 1 is falling apart.’ ”
But the fading glory of Hilltop was obvious on assessors’ visits to the property, Keohan said.
“There weren’t a lot of cars in the parking lot,” he said.
Inside, only one of several kitchens was open. Dining rooms, decorated with cattle horns and wooden statues, were empty.
“Things inside hadn’t been upgraded,” Keohan said. “You could tell times were tough and they just haven’t been able to keep it up.”