One for the Road

It was my Gilligan's Island fantasy. We would sip exotic fruit punch from coconuts and choose from endless flaming hors d'oeuvres on spinning lazy Susans. That's the South Pacific scenario I played in my mind as a child every time the family station wagon passed the Kowloon restaurant on the northbound side of Route 1. Or, if we were headed south toward Boston, the giant cactus of the Hilltop Steak House would come into view, and I'd imagine myself astride my trusty pony, sauntering down a dusty trail to the campsite where my fellow cowpokes sat around a roaring fire, eating thick steaks and drinking from dented tin cups.

But our Oldsmobile never stopped at these places. We weren't cruising along Route 1 to dine; it was our road to discounts on everything from wallpaper to tires to back-to-school clothes. The fiberglass cows and leaning towers of Pisa failed to attract the attention, as they were meant to, of my sensible parents.

I now find myself making the drive along Route 1 as a bargain-minded adult. And each trip brings back my childhood longings to stop and discover what's inside the legendary, larger-than-life restaurants along the way.

Most sprouted in the era of the family road trip, the Bermuda short, and the all-you-can-eat buffet. But the real story of Route 1 began even earlier — in the 17th century — when it was a mail route that stretched from Fort Kent, Maine, to Key West, Florida. By the 1920s, it connected city dwellers to beachside vacation spots. As cars zoomed north and south, smart entrepreneurs set up roadside services, including gas stations and restaurants that grew larger and got bolder and brighter to attract the attention of passersby. Today, the Hilltop alone serves 1,200 steak dinners a day, while on a Saturday night the parking lot of the Kowloon fills to capacity. But does the food at these mammoths still hold the allure it used to?

The answer is, it runs the spectrum from wholesomely good to not quite edible. But that's beside the point. The nostalgic, Day-Glo pageantry of these places survives, even if the era of the family road trip does not. Route 1 is a place where you can let your inner child play for a while.

Hilltop Steak House
855 Broadway (Rte. 1 S.), Saugus, 781-233-7700

We pulled into the stadium-sized parking lot and passed the giant, electrified cactus and those legendary fiberglass cows that have been the object of at least one college prank (a cow wound up atop the MIT dome). Inside, a herd of portly hostesses confronted us. “How many?” they asked quickly, then barked out: “Sioux City, party of two!” We were directed to one of three enormous dining rooms (gamely named Sioux City, Kansas City, and Dodge City). Crayons and coloring pads awaited us, but no waitress: She seemed to have more trouble getting to our table than we did. No wonder, then, that we had long since placed our orders before we were served warm glasses of red wine and salads drizzled with bright yellow dressing.

No matter; we were really here to eat red meat. When it came, the 15-ounce bone-in sirloin was cooked to medium-rare perfection, but needed salt and pepper. The marinated steak tips were tender and juicy three-inch chunks of medium-cooked meat, although the peppers and onions were slightly undercooked for my taste.

As fine as the meal was, it was our brief exchanges with our server that in the end made the experience memorable. Betty was working her tail off and clearly had been for some time that evening. But she was friendly and unapologetic. She asked us to please pass our salt and pepper, because if we didn't she'd have to lean across the table, “and you girls don't want to see that.” What might have been considered rude somewhere else was, at the Hilltop, part of being in the family.

Prince Pizzeria & Bar
517 Broadway (Rte. 1 S.), Saugus, 781-233-9950

Arthur Castraberti had family in mind when he began his pizza and pasta business in 1961 as a small stand with seating for just 12. Now Prince Pizzeria & Bar seats 650, and it's impossible to miss thanks to its landmark replica of the leaning Tower of Pisa. All the food is ordered from a menu board and brought to your table by tired-looking waiters who circle with your pizza, shouting out your name until you flag them down. And that pizza is very good (and big), if thick-crusted Greek style is to your liking. We spiced up ours with jalapeño peppers and sweet caramelized onions — a mistake, as the toppings detracted from the simple tomato sauce and cheese. The caesar salad was standard issue, save the overseasoned croutons that distracted from the simplicity of the greens tossed in a lemon-y bright, not-too-garlicky dressing.

Ruggieri's at the Ship
24 Broadway (Rte. 1 S.), Lynnfield, 781-595-7400

Dining in a restaurant shaped like a brigantine, complete with busty figurehead, should induce spontaneous outbursts of “ahoy.” Which is precisely what I said when I arrived. It might have been the excitement of finally getting to eat at Ruggieri's, or it could have been the buzz from the meadow and cinnamon scents wafting out of the Yankee Candle shop (which occupies the stern of the ship). The cloying bouquet travels to the restaurant and, like bad cologne on a blind date, it set the mood for our meal. There was barely a seat available in the dining room, filled with well-behaved children in their Sunday best being tended to by parents and doting grandparents gathered for family dinners.

The lengthy menu features typical Italian-American cuisine. The zucchini fritto and Buffalo-style chicken tenders were textbook demonstrations of fried food done right. The crispy, breadcrumb-coated zucchini held its shape; the chicken pieces were irresistibly crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside. Unfortunately, both were accidentally served with the same blue cheese sauce, which made for a heavy start. Our salad also had blue cheese in it, but came, oddly enough, with no dressing. When we asked about this, we were told that it was on the bottom of the bowl (it wasn't). The salads were ultimately taken off our bill, a smart touch that goes a long way toward goodwill.

The surf-and-turf entrée of steak and stuffed shrimp was just fine. The steak was cooked to order but needed salt and pepper to show its true colors, and the drawn butter was flavorless. The chicken Marsala arrived at the table a large double-breast portion of the classic, served with a generous amount of rubbery sautéed mushrooms. The sidekick of pasta never made it.

The missteps in service were amateurish at best, careless at worst. A splurge on after-dinner drinks in lieu of dessert resulted in another mix-up. Surprised to see one of my favorite indulgences, Belle de Brillet (pear brandy), on the menu, I was more surprised when, after the waitress returned saying she “couldn't find it anywhere,” we were presented with Grand Marnier.

The Continental  
266 Broadway (Rte. 1 N.), Saugus, 781-233-2587

I didn't know there were still places around these parts that served early-bird specials. I was mistaken, because at 5:30 p.m. the Continental Restaurant was already half full of diners downing bargain meals with free extras. Before our order was placed, a friendly young waitress offered us complimentary meatballs and chicken wings, and while they seemed to have been left over from the night before, the gesture was appreciated. Our dinner continued with a second gift from the kitchen that arrived with no explanation: What it was, I couldn't exactly make out, though kidney beans, chopped pickles, and sour cream appeared to be involved. Soup came next, and while I was suspicious at this point about the pedigree, the clear broth tasted homemade and the carrots and celery chunks had a fresh texture and taste. The salad was uninspired, but hardly a failure, and the entrées that followed did not disappoint. My companion's scrod was a simple, well-cooked piece of fish in a light, buttery sauce, though my “broiled junior sirloin steak” was a bit tired.

Dessert was included in our early-bird special, too: Our waiter even finagled us an ice cream creation that was not part of the fixed-price menu. I'm not sure if I'll return for these special dinners served Monday through Friday until 6:30 p.m. and Saturday until 5:30 p.m., but I understand why the many families camped here will: The price was just $11.95 per person for four courses.

The Border Café
817 Broadway (Rte. 1 S.), Saugus, 781-233-5308

The huge neon sign above the Border Café says “EAT,” and that's what half the North Shore seemed to be doing there at 4:45 on a Sunday afternoon. We had to wait a frustrating half-hour for a table, though the anxiety turned out to be nothing a refreshing lime margarita and a warm basket of chips couldn't cure.

The Mexican-meets-Cajun cuisine was mostly mediocre, ranging from a flavorless guacamole to a sad treatment of catfish. Our waiter (clearly in a hurry) suggested the redfish “ya-ya” in Cajun seasonings, but I couldn't bring myself to order what the menu described as this “cacophony” of flavors. Instead I picked the catfish “Mardi Gras” — which, although the fish itself exceeded my expectations, was not the party on a plate I'd hoped for. The firm, white fish was smothered in a Creole meunière (a spicy twist on the traditional lemon, butter, and caper sauce) that covered over any hint of flavor.

Things wouldn't have ended quite so poorly had I not visited the filthiest bathroom I've encountered outside of a highway rest stop. And thanks to the continuous loop that plays in the restaurant, I still can't get the lyrics out of my head: “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl.”

Kelly's Roast Beef
595 Broadway (Rte. 1 S.), Saugus, 781-233-5000

It would be more than easy to satisfy a hunger pang at one of the many fast-food restaurants on Route 1, but with an outpost of the Revere Beach classic Kelly's Roast Beef along the road, why bother? I found the orange-tinted sauce too tangy and distracting for the generous portion of buttery-rich, thin slices of rare roast beef, the French fries weren't as crispy as I would have liked, and the place was packed with families dressed in sweatsuits who looked as though they fell on the non-crispy side of the French-fry debate. But with most of the food made on the premises — and fast — this local fave is worth the stop.

948 Broadway (Rte. 1 N.), Saugus, 781-233-0077

I was downright giddy as we searched for a spot to park among the rows and rows and rows of spaces at the Kowloon. I knew there would be no grass skirt for me to wear, let alone a postdinner limbo contest, but this was it: my big kahuna of dining. I tried to remain calm as we passed hundreds of framed celebrity photos — Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Bourque, even Larry “Bud” Melman. I felt like I was entering a Las Vegas casino.

On closer inspection, the mishmash of patterns and colors of the décor seemed more like something seedy from Atlantic City. From our side of the room, it was hard to see the other — mostly because our view was blocked by a feng shui nightmare of pink, purple, orange, and red fixtures and paints accented by a fountain the size of a lap pool lit by colored lights beneath a patchy jungle of plastic palm trees. I was on sensory overload before the menus even came, but we managed to piece together an order from the Polynesian, Szechwan, and Cantonese specialties. (Thai and Japanese dishes also are available.)

Other than the moo shi pork, the food was not good, but — I must admit — we had fun. Even though my drink arrived in a ceramic coconut shell and not a real one, and the pupu platter was a tasteless mix of hours-old fried foods, the goofiness of the eight-page menu offering some 300 dishes made the whole experience a great escape. It's the ridiculousness of it all that makes an evening at the Kowloon so enjoyable. The restaurant was filled with families and friends getting together and young couples on first dates. There are no airs put on here, and no embarrassment about enjoying a meal in what is, after all, a giant ersatz tiki village towering above the highway home.