By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Why I won’t miss the Hilltop Steak House

2754777213_de99e027a7_nHere is what I’m going to miss about the Hilltop Steak House, which announced this week that it will soon be closing its doors: driving past it during the holidays and looking at the fiberglass cattle wearing Santa hats. And — well, that’s it.

The demise of an icon is always sad. Once the country’s appetite for huge cuts of steak started to diminish, the Hilltop’s enormous size no doubt worked against it. Maybe it could have continued indefinitely if it had occupied a much smaller, cheaper space.

But unlike another Boston icon, Legal Sea Foods, the Hilltop never made any concessions to the 21st century. Legal has long since moved past broiled schrod and fried shrimp. Its menu is thoroughly modern and up to date. But at the Hilltop it is still the same old thing — salad, baked potato and a large, fresh but rather flavorless slab-o-meat.

The last time I went to the Hilltop was maybe 10 years ago. I brought my son because I thought he’d enjoy the experience; I hadn’t been in ages myself. Neither of us was impressed. My tastes had moved on, and his had never developed in that direction.

My wife and I enjoyed an occasional trip to the Hilltop in the 1980s, when you’d stand in line for a half-hour to an hour before being herded into one of its gigantic, Western-theme dining rooms.

But that was a long time ago.

Photo (cc) by splityard and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. As you, I recall visiting Hilltop back in the 1980s with my wife and waiting in line to be let into one of its several dining rooms, but I have no recollection of whether we enjoyed the meal.

    What I do miss, however, is Chickland — further down the road in Saugus, next door to Carl’s Duckland. The rotissaried chicken meal, including soup and dessert for, as I recall about $7 (this was in the 1940s and 1950s), was what I miss the most. It and Topsy’s fried chicken were the best around.

  2. Steve Kurkjian

    Topsy’s, in Kingston?

  3. Victor DeRubeis

    Disagree. One of the things that made Hilltop special, Dan, was its culinary consistency and its status as comfort-food touchstone for the literally thousands of us who grew up on the place. The sirloin tips (when available) were the same in 1964, when I took my mom and grandmother there for lunch with shoeshine money I’d earned, as they were in 1985, when I went there with a group of guys for the start of a bachelor party for a Malden News colleague. Then they started mucking with the formula and the quality, replacing Piantedosi’s hand-knotted rolls with things that came out of a mold; replacing the half-sticks of dewy-fresh butter with generic pats, replacing the the naked sirloin tips with, egad, “hip” marinated ones, which weren’t half bad, but they weren’t the old Hilltop. We haven’t been there in years, mostly because we’ve been living on the South Shore, where the Faux Hilltop closed in ’07 and, yes, our dining tastes and options have changed dramatically. But we’re planning to make one last pilgrimage to the Sacred Cactus before Oct. 20. If the food and the service are awful, so be it. We’ll be there to feast on the memories.

  4. What an impressive operation though. I remember hearing that they had two full-time employees in the kitchen that did nothing for eight to ten hours a day but wrap potatoes in tin foil. From a business perspective, the place was genius. As Bernie O’Donnell said, for a college student (in my case sick of dorm food – Bernie may have commuted) to go out and get such as huge steak, salad and baked potato for about ten bucks back then was like a gift from God. And we’d joke about the snow accumulating on the heads of the plastic cows. But we went back to school well fed and content, if also full of cholesterol. “432 for Kansas City” –I still hear it in my dreams (but I havent’ eaten there since 1982).

  5. Rick Peterson

    A relative in the meat business once told me their secret was a machine that broke down gristle with tiny needles, rendering tough yet flavorful cuts tender. That’s why it was decent on Saturday night yet dreadful on Sunday morning. Instead of fat marbling, some of the experience was mechanical.

  6. Laurence Glavin

    For several years, I would go to the Valle’s across the street from the Longwood Cricket Club before the professional tennis matches along with my tennis-playing friends. Valle’s was in the same mold as Hilltop, but when they crossed a certain price point, it was all over. The word “icon”, which has been attached to the Hilltop in stories about its demise actually means “image”, and often images are just that: something that goes away over time. (The Saint named Veronica was reputed to have held a veil up to Jesus’s face while he was carrying the cross, causing an image of JC’s face on it. Veronica was supposed to mean “true image”. What was her name BEFORE she did that. and was that veil the first selfie?)

  7. Mike Rice

    “The demise of an icon is always sad.” Take this country – for example.

  8. my wife and I went there for the first time in years a few years ago and it was pretty bad. Maybe I remember it being better than it was or the quality had deteriorated but the service was very slow, they messed up one of the orders (which happens, I know) and the steak tips, which I ordered medium, probably could have used a saw to get through them. And judging by the age of the diners I see in the pictures, I imagine their clientele has had a lot of attrition in recent years. Jimmy’s, on the other side of Rt. 1 and up a mile or two, is a lot better and that’s been our steakhouse in recent years.

    I’ll miss the cactus and cows, of course.

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