A storied stretch of Route 1 in Massachusetts was once home to restaurants with over-the-top roadside attractions. Now, only Kowloon, owned by the Wong family, remains, and it’s unclear for how much longer.
Every other weekend between 1988 and 1998, I became, as my fourth-grade teacher christened me, Miss Pan Am, jetting between Boston’s Logan Airport and LaGuardia’s Marine Air Terminal. I was born in New York City, and that’s where my father remained when my mother relocated to the north, where she grew up; Newburyport, Massachusetts, would become my adopted hometown.
A life like that sees a lot of repetition. For me, much of that trip played out on a strip of U.S. Route 1, all neon signs and strange attractions, when I sat as a passenger on the 48-minute drive between the airport and my mom’s home. But what’s still the most fascinating in my childhood memory is a gargantuan, totem-festooned restaurant called Kowloon, located on Route 1 just 10 miles north of the airport in a town called Saugus.
Kowloon has been in the news lately. They’re closing, or maybe they’re not closing, or they’re just talking about closing. Co-owned by the 94-year-old matriarch Madeline Wong; her personable son and the de facto face of the restaurant, Bob Wong; and Bob Wong’s siblings, Linda Chu, Donald Wong, Stanley Wong, Lisa Wong, and Andrew Wong, Kowloon has been open since 1950, and the restaurant is inextricable from this specific slice of highway, which spans roughly 15 miles from Malden to Peabody. It and the road together are cohorts of a midcentury driving and dining culture in a trio of neighboring Massachusetts counties: Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk. Here is the beating heart of the North Shore (to avoid it, you’d have to take a maze of back roads), and so getting from place to place without driving alongside the attendant attractions would be nearly impossible.
As recently as the mid-’90s, the attractions were many. On the southbound side of the highway, in Saugus, near the Malden border, an orange dinosaur used to preside over the Route 1 Miniature Golf & Batting Cages, which had stood guard over speeding cars since the 1960s. Across the road, the late Frank Giuffrida’s Hilltop Steakhouse, founded in 1961 and once the largest-grossing restaurant in the world, with a 1,500-person capacity, has been closed since 2003, but its most important feature, a sky-high neon cactus, lives on. In 1930, a boat-shaped restaurant was built three miles north of Kowloon, in the town of Lynnfield; Italian joint Prince Pizzeria, not two miles from Kowloon, is outfitted with a very tall replica of the leaning tower of “pizza.”
My childhood was attached to these emblems: Given Route 1’s role as the North Shore’s through line, if you grew up in Massachusetts, you connect with its very existence. “It’s almost our own little World’s Largest Ball of Twine,” says food newsletter writer Josh Gee,