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hilltop cactus
The Hilltop cactus is being restored
Terrence B. Doyle/Eater

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Old Route 1 Is Disappearing Fast, but the Ancient Restaurant Signs Remain

Take a 20-mile road trip through a history filled with orange dinosaurs and giant cactuses

The orange dinosaur lurked on the sixth hole of the Route 1 Miniature Golf and Dairy Castle for more than half a century. Hit the ball out of play, and risk losing an arm to the hulking fiberglass reptile. Few landmarks represent Route 1 north of Boston more vividly than the orange dinosaur.

The golf course and ice cream shop have since been razed, and a mixed-use luxury apartment complex called Essex Landing is being built in their place: For the low, low price of $2,400 a month, Essex Landing claims its residents will “be able to eat, sleep, and play with dramatic views overlooking Boston and the Atlantic Ocean.” More like depressing views overlooking a Ford dealership and a pool supply store. Also: No one has views of anything while they’re asleep.

At least the orange dinosaur remains: It continues to watch over travelers headed south on Route 1, abandoning the familiar astroturf of the miniature golf course for a spit of grass behind a retaining wall.

orange dinosaur rte. 1
The orange dinosaur shouts into the void

The Route 1 Miniature Golf and Dairy Castle isn’t the only iconic Saugus business to be replaced by a mixed-use luxury apartment complex: The site left vacant when the Hilltop Steakhouse — once America’s largest restaurant by sales volume and number of customers — was demolished in 2015 is currently under development, and it will boast 280 apartments and 24,000 square feet of retail space once it’s complete. (Just 10 percent of those apartments are designated affordable. The same is true at Essex Landing.)

hilltop steakhouse cactus
hilltop steakhouse cactus
hilltop steakhouse cactus

The old Hilltop site is currently being developed into a mixed-use luxury apartment complex

Though the cactus appears to be in disrepair, it’s actually — thankfully — being restored. Michael Roberts, who is the senior vice president of Avalon Bay Communities, Inc., which is the company that is redeveloping the site, told the Boston Globe in May 2018 that the sign is “an iconic piece of the development.”

“There’s a long history to it,” Roberts told the Globe. “From the beginning, we felt it was important to include that into our development.”

The steakhouse will forever be missed, but at least we’ll always have that wonderfully absurd, 68-foot cactus.

hilltop steakhouse cactus
The cactus waits to be restored to its original luster

It’s not all redevelopment and mixed-use doom and gloom for this stretch of neoliberal hellscape, though: Kowloon is still thriving 60 years after Madeline and Bill Wong bought the building. Kowloon has enough space to accommodate 1,200 diners, along with a comedy club at which the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, David Alan Grier, and Phyllis Diller have performed. The laughs are plentiful, and the crab rangoons are the truth.

Exterior view of a restaurant with a large A-frame entrance and red signage
Not pictured: A packed parking lot during a weekend lunch rush

Continuing north along Route 1: More outrageous signage, a very creepy clown, and more comedy. Prince Pizzeria claims to be the largest family-owned pizzeria in America — Saugus loves to do it up big — and regularly hosts Boston comedy legends like Lenny Clarke. When I was younger, I went to many birthday parties at Prince. At each of those parties, there was inevitably a person performing as a clown that looked like a cut-rate Ronald McDonald. His visage haunts my dreams to this day.

prince pizzeria
One of the most ridiculous — but also most amazing — signs in restaurant history

Head 10 miles north on Route 1, and you’ll come across Putnam Pantry, a chocolatier and ice cream joint named for Israel Putnam, who’s best known for his role in the Battle of Bunker Hill. The shop has been satisfying the North Shore’s sweet tooth since 1951.

putnam pantry
Another very good North Shore sign

The Topsfield Fair is mostly just an excuse to waste money on unwinnable carnival games and bad food, but its mission in its first year was clear and pure: “To promote and improve the agricultural interests of farmers and others in Essex County.” To this day, the Topsfield Fair is still one of the region’s biggest fall events. Who doesn’t like watching pigs race?

Topsfield Fair
This year’s version will be the 200th anniversary of the Topsfield Fair

While you’re that far north, make sure to stop into the Agawam Diner for a cup of coffee and a slice of lemon meringue pie. Thanks to the restaurant’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places, it looks exactly the way it did when it opened (in a different location, mind you) in 1954.

agawam diner
Weekly specials include chicken pot pie and meatloaf

Before turning around and heading back to the city, stop in Rowley at what is the very last outpost of Spud’s Restaurant & Pub. Patrons were devastated when the Saugus location shut down earlier this year.

The last of its kind

If the juxtaposition of the signs above is any kind of an omen, you mustn’t pass...on your chance to try Spud’s bourbon turkey tips.