SAUGUS—For a moment, 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 today, no steak will be served at what was once the busiest restaurant in the country. Instead, after more than 50 years in business, the landmark Hilltop Steakhouse 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,” said 37-year-old Michelle Russell wistfully, as a pack of bidders tore through the kitchen where she worked as a cook for four years in the early 1990s. “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 Oct. 20 closure. Customer had complained that the food was going downhill as well.
But for years, the Hilltop was a local landmark where generation after generation of families came to eat huge portions of steak at a good price or buy meat from the butcher shop behind the restaurant.
Around Russell, the kitchen hardware that once served 2.4 million hungry customers per year was selling for dirt cheap. When no one in a crowd of about 50 buyers made an offer on a working-condition industrial dishwasher, one man jokingly called out, “twenty dollars!” There were chuckles, but after receiving no other offers, a visibly stunned auctioneer sold the man the hulking machine, which other buyers speculated was worth perhaps 10 or 20 times that amount in scrap metal alone.
“It was always busy. We were just killing every night,” Russell remembered. “Just to see this whole line that was up and running for sale and empty now, it’s sad.”
A larger crowd of buyers is expected later this afternoon, when the restaurant’s Western-themed decor will be auctioned off.
Large American Indian and cow statues that were displayed in front of the Hilltop were expected to be the marquee items, and will be sold along with Western-style paintings, signage, old menus, and other branded items from the restaurant’s long history.