Friday, July 30, 2010

Prime real estate: Saugus, Massachusetts' Hilltop Steak House

This gives you an idea of the scale of this neon masterpiece (Hitchcockian camera angle thrown in at no extra charge).

This is the pork roast luncheon special for $9.99. I kid you not.

Doggie bag, please.

This helpful placemat lets you know just what part of the steer you're eating...

...but there is such a thing as too much information.

Frank Giuffrida, looking a bit like Al Martino here.

Saugus, Massachusetts, thirteen miles northeast of Boston, has a stretch of Route 1 that whizzes by at about a million miles an hour. Folks in this area have places to go, people to see, things to do, and the biggest thing to do along here for the past 49 years has been the Hilltop Steak House. In 1961, restaurateur Frank Giuffrida wanted all of Massachusetts to know he was opening a western-themed steak house, so he erected a 50-foot neon cactus in the style of old Freemont Street Las Vegas to beckon all carnivores near and far, along with a restaurant building resembling a corral and life-size plastic cows grazing in front. The place became a sure-fire bonanza, serving three million customers annually in their enormous dining rooms named Kansas City, Dodge City and Carson City. Customers stampeded for the huge portions at low prices and a wait of an hour or more was not uncommon, with a regionally accented lady announcing over the loudspeaker "numba 44 for Dawge City" to get you to your table. Our old friend Gary took us to the Hilltop back in the 80s we and got the full experience: the crowds, the lady, the western motif, the meat. So we were wondering what the place would be like all these years later. Happily, it's still there and looks exactly the same (and I do mean exactly). We were there at lunchtime on a Saturday and there were no crowds at all, so no "Cahson City" pronouncements by the loudspeaker lady. The portions were still artery-cloggingly enormous and at low, low prices. And best of all, Massachusetts' most famous 5-story cactus is still alive and well.

Recent posts by diners on sites like tripadvisor are very mixed. Steak connoisseurs bust their chops over the food and service, and nostalgic locals say the Hilltop has gone down hill in the last 20 years. Personally, we thought our food was great (with enough left over for many more meals), but the food isn't the main reason for going here. It's a time warp, a reminder of a bygone era when eating a ton of meat and starch meant you were living the good life and your place mat showed you what part of the cow you were eating. So we've loined our lesson, Hilltop: what goes round comes round. You didn't steer us wrong. Shanks for the memories for a job well done.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Good, bad and ugly: Dedham, Massachusetts' Museum of Bad Art

A good citizen, indeed.


"Drilling for Eggs"

The gallery

"Joan Crawford"

"Play Boy Bunnies"


"Papa Nostro"

The Museum is housed in this lovely 1927 working theater in charming downtown Dedham.

And if you're a man and you need to answer the call of nature...

...the Mens Room is conveniently located just on the other side of this partition (sorry, ladies -- you'll have to go to the other side of the lobby).

We're big fans of "so bad it's good" here at Eccentric Roadside and no one has got that covered better than the Museum of Bad Art (MoBA) in picturesque Dedham, Massachusetts on Boston's southwest border. Started in 1994 by five righteous bad art lovers, the Museum now has 500 pieces in its collection, with a rotating group show on permanent display next to the Mens Room in the basement of the Dedham Community Theatre. The pieces come from a variety of sources, including yard sales, thrift stores and donations. MoBA bills itself as the only museum dedicated to bringing the worst of art to the widest of audiences, but there is a criteria for what can be accepted. "Works must be original and have serious intent, but they must also have significant flaws without being boring; curators are not interested in deliberate displays of kitsch." Kind of like the TV show "Dragnet," which is the most unintentionally hilarious show on television because it tried so hard to be serious. They also exclude works done by children, black velvet art, paint-by-numbers or commercially produced paintings, proving it's as hard to get into a bad art museum as it is to get into a good one.

They support themselves by selling anthology books of the collection and T-shirts, along with donations from bad art lovers everywhere. They also have a terrific website and a sister gallery in another theater basement in nearby Somerville, Massachusetts. They like to say "In our museum, it's not the artists that are tortured, it's the patrons." We say we may not know art, but we know what we like and we love the Museum of Bad Art.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Modern marvel: Pawtucket, Rhode Island's Modern Diner

The Modern Diner is famous for their outstanding specials.

These people aren't in the witness protection program...I just blurred their faces in case they're internet phobic.

There's something wonderful about the word "modern". In the early part of the 20th century, modern meant futuristic. Modern art, modern design, modern man. In the early part of the 21st century, modern is usually associated with something nostalgic, old fashioned or quaint. And the irony of the name Modern Diner is as delicious as the bacon and eggs they serve up with a friendly smile to eager patrons every day. The eatery is considered by those with diner know-how as the best surviving example of the Sterling Streamliner diners built in the 1930s and 40s. The Modern dates back to 1940 and it holds the distinction of being the first diner in the country to be accepted on the National Register of Historic Places, right up there with the St. Louis Arch, the Erie Canal and Alcatraz.

The Modern also has the further distinction of winning a lawsuit settlement from the Walt Disney Company. In the early 90s, a clothing company hired by Disney manufactured 72,000 garments depicting cartoons of Mickey and Minnie Mouse in front of a photograph of the Modern Diner, with the name Modern Diner clearly in view. The t-shirts, sweatshirts and maternity shirts were sold in Sears, K-Mart and Caldor stores. When the Modern's owners found out, they sued Disney, the designers and the stores, claiming their common law trademark was violated. A settlement was paid to the Modern, to the zip-a-dee-doo-dah glee of their owners. What makes this particularly ironic is the fact that Disney is known for being ferociously proprietary of their own copyrights, going so far as to threaten legal action against three Florida nursery schools to prevent them from painting murals of Mickey, Donald Duck and Goofy on their walls.

So the next time you find yourself in the working class Providence suburb of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, get back to the future and visit the Modern Diner. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Rich, Corinthian leather, anyone? Wakefield, Rhode Island's vintage Chrysler dealership

Before he was battling Captain Kirk as Khan, Ricardo Montalban was extolling the virtues of the 1976 Chrysler Cordoba...

...which you can still find at Fred W. Smith's.

They've got a lot full of old Chryslers, Plymouths and Dodges

The Dart Swinger: If you were a swinger in the 70s, this was your car.

You could get all the Bradys, as well as the entire casts of My Three Sons, Family Affair, Nanny and the Professor and Bonaza in this Imperial wagon.

John Voight's LeBaron?

Our kindred roadside spirit RubberatRoad 's post about a Chrysler LeBaron reminded us about an eccentric roadside attraction we came across close to home: the Fred W. Smith vintage Chrysler dealership of Wakefield, Rhode Island. Wakefield's Tower Hill Road is a typically busy main drag, with fast food joints, gas stations and strip malls. Typical, that is, until a lot full of 1970s Cordobas, LeBarons and Imperials induces a neck-craning double-take. The name Fred W. Smith has been on the shingle of Rhode Island car dealerships since 1916, but a Mr. Bill Jeffrey is the proprietor of this retro establishment, and his passion, you may have guessed, are Chryslers from the Kojak era. These brown, Landau-roofed land yachts seem huge in a way different from today's oversized SUVs and they possess an aggressive attitude, as if they're saying "what are YOU lookin' at?" I remember these boats from my teenage years and how badly their owners suffered during the first gas shortages of the 1970s. Deja vu all over again. So get out your powder blue double-knits, grab your Peter Frampton eight-tracks and head down to Fred Smith's. And tell them Ricardo sent you.