Nobody Gets a Bum Steer at the Busiest Restaurant in the U.s.

updated 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

This is no place for tiny turnips, wimpy shrimp or itty-bitty kiwis. No sirree. BIG is the buzzword at the Hilltop Steak House, a colossal mecca for America's beef eaters that is sprawled along Route No. 1 in Saugus, Mass., just north of Boston. For the fifth consecutive year, Hilltop has been heralded by Restaurants & Institutions magazine as the busiest restaurant in the land. Last year Hilltop served more diners (42,000 a week) and grossed more dollars ($30.5 million) than any other restaurant in the United States.

Everything is big at Hilltop: the 68-foot neon cactus that stands as a beacon for hungry travelers, the 12-acre parking lot, the Goliath portions and, apparently, the bottomless appetites of the diners who wait up to two hours on a Saturday night for one of 1,300 seats in the restaurant's five dining rooms. "It has made me a wealthy man," says owner Frank Giuffrida of his all-cash operation. In fact, the only thing that's small at Hilltop is the bill (the most expensive entreé is $13), and therein lies its appeal.

Hilltop is not just a haven for damn-the-cholesterol carnivores. In addition to the 6,500 pounds of raw beef prepared daily, the restaurant serves more than four tons of seafood and 4,000 pounds of poultry each week. Also on an average week's grocery list: 550 pounds of coffee, 4,000 pounds of tomatoes, 600 gallons of house salad dressing, 3,600 pounds of green beans and, brace yourself, 126,000 foil-wrapped butter pats. "Mr. Giuffrida wants nothing but the best," says Lenny DeRosa, maestro of purchasing. "We only serve Heinz ketchup." Moreover, Hilltop's steak sauce is strictly A-1. Says Giuffrida: "My father always told me: 'If you get something for 95 cents, sell it for a dollar and people will come back for more.' "

And so they do. On one recent Thursday, Carol Handy and Elmer Santerre drove 60 miles from New Hampshire and queued up for an hour just to savor the sirloin. "People don't mind being treated like cattle because they know they are going to get a good meal for the right price," says one of Hilltop's 650 employees. "They come here expecting the action." Anyone who behaves politely and doesn't come barefoot or dressed in a bikini is welcome. So are eccentrics. No one winces, for example, when one Friday regular insists that an extra place be set at her table for the Lord. "Even the Lord comes to Hilltop," says a hostess with a grin. And praise the Lord for the Heimlich maneuver, which is called upon at least once a month.

The real show takes place backstage, and the stars are the tireless workers who move at Mach 2. Take an average Friday—fish day. At 6:40 a.m. broiler cook Nick Anastospoulos lights a regiment of ovens, gets his deep fryers bubbling and surveys the first of 72 pounds of haddock—the chef's $5 special—that will be served that day. By 7:38 Alfonso Manriquez has seasoned enough rice to fill 12 roasting pans and Dana McManus is stirring a 60-gallon stockpot of whipped potatoes. At 8:22 Michael Rhubart is scooping side dishes of coleslaw, and Fred Bonaventura is hoisting huge bins of ice to stock the restaurant's four bars.

In a bloody back room a team of portion cutters are performing surgery on sides of beef while Daniel MacDonald is upstairs pumping tartar sauce into 4,500 two-ounce cups. In a chilled side room Charlie Stockwell is all but lost in a flurry of flying lettuce as he and two helpers give new meaning to the word tossed while stocking 3,800 salad bowls. "A restaurant is a restaurant, but this place is a conglomerate," says kitchen worker Alfred Diotta, who got lost on his maiden voyage into the 16,200-square-foot subterranean storage warehouse. "The only reason it works is because people like it here. If they didn't, it would be chaos."

At full tilt the kitchen is distinguished by its noise, which calls to mind the clatter of a thousand castanets. Steam billows from the assembly-line dishwasher, utility runners sprint in to replenish dwindling supplies, and waves of white-clad waitresses wash through the kitchen shouldering enormous trays piled high with platters of sirloin, fruit salads, french fries, baskets of teetering dinner rolls and slabs of shimmering Jell-O. Entering the crossfire, Giuffrida shows off a pair of plump pork chops. "Look at these," he marvels. "We could get $13, but we charge $7. I'm telling ya, we give value."

Friends told Giuffrida, 71, he was crazy when he decided to turn the Hilltop Lounge, a successful bar, into a 125-seat steakhouse 27 years ago. A butcher by trade, Frank often toiled until dawn cutting the steak he would serve for $1.50. Wife Irene acted as hostess and with each year the business prospered. Daughters Tina, 17, and Gina, 16, have each served time as hostesses at Hilltop on their summer breaks. Today, after seven additions, the restaurant is a model of computerized efficiency and cost control. At least two satellite Hilltops are in the works, and this month the company will be launching a steak-by-mail-order business.

At 10:30 on an average Friday morning a procession of patrons fills the glassed-in corridor that wraps around the restaurant and spills out into the parking lot. Nineteen minutes after the doors open, all tables are taken and Don Ashcraft is standing in his outdoor pulpit handing out numbered tickets to the remaining masses. As seats become available, Annie Luongo and Mary Mustone call out numbers over a loudspeaker with Bingo-hall brio: "Numbers 72 and 56 for Sioux City"—in homage to Giuffrida's fondness for tough buckaroos like John Wayne, each dining room is named after a town in the Old West—"138 for Dodge City; 167, 110 for Kansas City."

By the end of an average day, 10,000 soiled paper napkins have been discarded, 3,200 doggie bags have been dispensed, 34,245 dishes have been washed, at least one possession—ranging from dentures to dirty diapers—has been left behind, and Frank Giuffrida is as satisfied as the day's 6,000 customers. "People ask why I don't retire to Florida," he observes. "Why should I? Down there I'm just another guy who can afford a penthouse. Up here I'm a big shot." Besides, he adds, "I like to eat here. I never have to wait."

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