Few people seem surprised that the Hilltop Steak House in Saugus is closing, but plenty of people are wistful. The restaurant has long been famous for its 68-foot neon cactus sign, its decorative fiberglass cows, and its enormous portions. But, more than all that, it represented a particular kind of dining experience. The Hilltop revelled in its country-kitsch decor and its simple, meat-and-potatoes menu. Its founder, Frank Giuffrida, was a garrulous old-school host, and he exemplified a kind of wheeling and dealing that seems unfathomable today: When he sold the restaurant in 1988, he negotiated free meals and butcher-shop steaks for his family — for life.
But times changed, both in the restaurant business and for the Hilltop. A few years ago, a new owner ended the Giuffrida family perk, launching a bitter court battle. (The restaurant was also part of a 2006 class-action suit involving tips withheld from the wait staff.) In the meantime, family habits and consumer tastes evolved. In the suburbs, destination steakhouses gave way to national chains, or to high-end urban-style restaurants that emphasize gourmet ingredients and complex plates. Health concerns diminished the appeal of the giant slab of meat. In the end, the demand for a kitschy dining experience wasn’t large enough to keep the Hilltop afloat forever. But the cactus and cows, long an icon on Route 1, will live on in plenty of memories.