Wendy Deis, Tracy Gagnon and Robin Miller sit in the Dunkin' Donuts on Route 59, just down the block from Nyack's Hilltop Restaurant.
"Maybe we can get the sign down and take it home," Gagnon says. She's talking about the emblematic "Hilltop Restaurant" sign, which once lit up Route 59 and drew in locals and passers-by.
Most long-time Nyackers have a connection to the now-defunct eatery, but these three are particularly attached. Deis and Gagnon are the daughters of Nick Donato, Jr., one of the restaurant's founding brothers; Miller was Nick Donato's partner, and a family friend. All three worked as waitresses and hostesses during the Hilltop's 60 year life span.
The building is in a state of disrepair now—and just weeks from being —but Deis, Gagnon and Miller talk of a vivid past.
Hilltop's history—which can be traced back to the pre-World War II years—began with a modest eatery called Nick's Spagehtti House in Central Nyack, started up by Nick Donato, Sr. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Donato's four boys—Nicholas Jr., Julius, Thomas and Rudolf—joined the armed forces and were deployed around the world. There were two Donato sisters, also: Theresa and Mary.
Nicholas, Jr. didn't let his age preclude him from service. "He lied about his age to enlist," Deis recalled. "He was only 16- or 17-years-old, but he was stationed on the Oliver Mitchell, a destroyer."
When the war ended in 1946 and the four brothers returned home, the Hilltop Restaurant on Route 59 was born. The eatery was built, a liquor license was obtained and the Italian dining room officially opened its door on July 4, 1947.
"Everyone in the family worked there," Deis remembered. "We'd work the lunch shift, go home and then come back for the dinner shift." The four brothers—known to the village and Hilltop regulars as Nicky, Julie, Tommy and Sonny—each tackled a different task. Sonny and Julie—the quieter, more reserved brothers—manned the kitchen; Nicky and Tommy tended the bar.
Deis and Gagnon describe the Hillltop—from its inception in the 40s up until its closing in 2006—as a restaurant that functioned more like a family room than an eatery. The four brothers, along with their sisters and families, practiced a hospitality unfamiliar to most eateries today.
"This was before take-out dining and take-out containers," Gagnon said. "We'd have people come in with their pots and pans, fill them up with spaghetti and meatballs and then head out."
"There were a lot of regulars, and tables were named by family," Deis added. The restaurant never accepted reservations, and on a Saturday or Sunday night, many Nyackers were willing to wait an hour or two for a chair and meal. The one exception? Helen Hayes.
"I only take reservations for Helen Hayes," Nicky Donato, Jr. would say. The place would be packed—families chatting, ordering and eating—but a small corner table would remain open, a Helen Hayes placard sitting on top.
Over the years, Hilltop's reputation grew—and the brothers did what they could to expand the restaurant, too. A coat closet was taken out to make room for more dining space; same with office space. "The volume of business grew astronomically," Deis explained. "We used every inch." Eventually, a liquor store was opened next door, and a diner opened shop down the block. Over the years, Donato family members would bump into strangers—everywhere from Kennebunkport, ME to Florence, Italy—who had dined at the eatery.
(Read about diners' favorite dishes .)
Still, with success a matter of course and expansion a necessity, the brothers never lost sight of charity and geniality, Deis, Gagnon and Miller noted.
"It was a generous family," Deis said. "Each holiday, the brothers would cook a meal for [less fortunate] employees and residents." Part of the Hilltop family was Dougie, and African American employee who struggled with discrimination in 1960s Nyack.
"Dougie would come and pick us up from school sometimes," Deis recalled. "School administrators would say, 'who is this?'"
But as the decades passed and the four founding brothers grew older, the day-to-day management of the flourishing business became more difficult. It closed its doors in 2006, with the remaining brothers in their 70s and 80s. "It had changed a lot since the early days," Deis explained. "And 60 years is a long time to have ongoing, seven-days-a-week responsibility."
Now, the four brothers are gone (read Nicky, Jr.'s obituary here), but Deis and Gagnon are seeking to preserve a piece of Hilltop history: the sign. If the Nyack Historical Society cannot find room for the banner, the sisters will.