Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Hilltop Steakhouse: No such thing as a free baked potato in Dodge City?

In truth, I don't think most people actually went to Hilltop Steakhouse  for the food. At least I didn't the few time I ate there (the last time was, oh, twenty years ago when a bunch of us went there after work one Friday night).

No, I went with friends - the more, the merrier - for the full Hilltop experience of waiting in a long line that wended its way through a herd of life-sized fiberglass cattle, beneath that gazillion foot high neon cactus that advertised the place. Yee-hah!

Once you reached the inner sanctum, you were given a number and waited until you heard it called over the PA: party 347, go to Sioux City. Or Kansas City. Or Dodge City.

Once you reached  your "city", you ordered a steak - not great, but large and inexpensive - which was served with what I recall as a large and reasonably good house salad.

But you didn't go to the Hilltop for the food, you went for the experience.

You went for the decor - surprise, surprise - was Hilltop Steakhouse - Frank GiuffridaWestern kitsch - the kind you'd expect in a fake ghost town: swinging saloon doors, wanted dead or alive posters, steer horns.  Lots of brown.

For the sheer hilarity of standing in line for so long, making your way through rope lines like cows filing up the chute to the slaughter.

For the pure bliss of sitting there, number in hand, wondering what room you'd be hollered into this time.

Even on Route 1 north of Boston, home of kitsch eateries like the giant pagoda Chinese spot, the seafood restaurant shaped like a ship, and the Italian joint with The Leaning Tower of Pisa out front, the Hilltop was special.

In its heyday - the seventies and eighties, i.e., in the dark ages of restaurant dining, before we'd ever heard the words "artisanal" or "reduction" - the Hilltop served 20,000 diners per week, and was the top-grossing independent restaurant in the country. (Have I already said "Yee-hah"?)

These days, I have no desire to drive on a crazy highway to eat at a mediocre restaurant. So it is highly unlikely that I will ever eat there again.

And there's apparently some likelihood that the family of its founder, the late Frank Giuffrida, won't be eating there again anytime soon - at least not for free.

As reported in last week's Boston Globe, the Giuffrida family had a deal with the company that bought them out years ago that they could continue to eat there for free, in what they thought would be perpetuity, and without having to suffer the indignity of waiting in line and being given a number.

Their presence, amid the hungry crowds and life-size fiberglass cattle, would always be the "highest priority" of the new owners. The next available table would always be theirs, and "unlimited" quantities of food and drink would be free to them and their guests. Forever.

The Giuffridas had sold the restaurant years ago, but had hung onto the property until 2004, when they unloaded it shortly after Frank went to his own personal last round-up.

Once they owned the place lock, stock, and barrel, the owners decided that the free food promise had expired.

The family didn't cotton to that, and - what could be more delightfully American, yet so non cowboy code of the West? - decided to sue the bastards.

The court finding that the new owners were within their rights when they relegated the survivors' demands to Boot Hill was upheld last year.

But Giuffrida's widow and daughters "have long argued that they never would have sold the property had they known it meant forfeiting their free steaks."

Hmmmmm. Wonder what the property was sold for. Wonder what the cost of free steaks for friends and family a few times a month amounts to. My guess is that the dollar weighting is on the side of the property sale.

But then there's the ability to two-step your way through the waiting herd, and show off to friends that your money's no good here.

Priceless, apparently.

While the Giuffridas have not won back their rights so far, they are being given their day in court, and have been granted "the right to argue at a trial that they were misled by the owners of the restaurant that still bears Frank's name on a 68-foot cactus sign on Route 1." (Did I say 'gazillion foot high neon cactus?' I was off by a few feet. It just looks a gazillion feet high.)

So, Commonwealth of Massachusetts taxpayers' money will go into paying to mediate this squabble over whether the Giuffridas are entitled to free lunch forever.

Am I the only one who'd rather see that money go to fill a pot-hole or something?

Better yet, I've got an idea.

First, I'm guessing that both the restaurants and the Giuffridas have plenty of money. (One of the owners is a part owner of the Colorado Rockies, a major league baseball team. So he's probably not hurting.)

Why don't they take the money they'd spend on lawyers and donate it to a food bank or homeless shelter?

Or the Guiffridas could agree to pay for their meals, on the condition that the proceeds were donated to a food bank or homeless shelter. Or an education fund for the children of staff members. Or a retirement kitty for the ancient waitresses who've worked there forever.

Or maybe the owners can come up with some compromise freebie for the Giuffridas that maybe limits the open-ended liability of having the family be able to swan in at will, with as many people in tow as they want, and demand a table and free eats. Maybe, say, offer them one free sup at that trough per month, for a party of 10 or 12.

But these solutions are no doubt too simple and pedestrian.

No, so much is at stake here, we've got to go to court.

We're talking free lunch in Dodge City, cowpoke. Yee-hah!

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