Feast: The Hilltop Steakhouse
Into every life, a little Hilltop must fall.
I’ve driven (or been driven) past The Hilltop Steakhouse on Route 1 every year of my life. I’ve heard stories of the pranks played on the poor cow statues, lore about owner Frank Guiffrida’s aversion to sour cream. I’ve seen the neon yellow salad dressing and watched, from across the street at the Kowloon, as families piled in for special occasions. But until last Friday, I had never been inside.
Back in the Hilltop’s heyday (1990), it was the busiest restaurant in the US – lines would form around the building’s perimeter. In her book, “Saturday Night,” Susan Orlean chronicles this period in Hilltop history, explaining that while a typical evening saw 7000 dinners served (10 thousand dinner rolls, 600 gallons of salad dressing, 45 thousand pounds of beef), crowds were a little lighter when the circus was in town. “Evidently,” she writes, “the kind of people who like the Hilltop also like the circus a lot, too.” Since the place boasts a 12 acre parking lot, mammoth building, and 70 foot cactus-shaped signpost, I think “circus” was exactly what they were going for.
The Hilltop is more subdued these days. On a Friday night at 6:30pm there is no waiting. Their limited wine list has an admirable selection, and the amount of non-steak options is impressive. Maybe Hilltop has reacted to customer’s changing attitudes toward red meat, or dwindling disposable income? Either way, steaks are the least of the menu. But while they don’t serve 45 thousand pounds of beef a night anymore, they still know how to sear a filet.
All the food was good. Baked potato (you can get sour cream now), warm dinner rolls, and steak tips were all well prepared. The tips (a dollar more expensive than the filet but still reasonably priced) were well seasoned with a peppery marinade. Our server was lovely. The patrons were quiet. The deer antler light fixtures were entertaining, as was the buffalo head mounted on the wall.
If you want a steak and a piece of history, I wouldn’t hesitate to take you to The Hilltop. But first, I’d make you hear about the good old times from my Mom or Aunt Judy, or at least read Susan Orlean’s story. Otherwise, you just wouldn’t appreciate it. And that would be a damn shame.