I want to explain to you why the Hilltop House Restaurant is so important to me–a place I have never been, a place I have only imagined. If you had had a grandmother like mine, (and maybe you were just that lucky), you would have heard about the Hilltop House very, very often.
Photo used with kind permission by Linda Matson Anderson.
For instance, frequently when we rounded the hill on Dodge crossing over 49th, my grandmother would exclaim, “Oh the Hilltop House.” It was said in a cherished way, almost to herself. Or it might come up in a discussion between my mother and grandmother when talking about ladies’ luncheons. Or ladies who luncheon. This was the spot. I was taught that it had delicious food and a great interior. If you were like me, you would have liked to have heard about the Hilltop House over and over and imagined it–because that was the beginning of imagining becoming a lady who lunches. Someone I never did become.
I cannot even remember if the restaurant was still open when I was a girl. I can’t remember seeing its sign. But the location, 4911 Dodge Street, has always been in recollection and being privy to such savory details about what went on inside….well, it’s a classic Omaha landmark in my mind.
Years later, in the early 1990’s I would move into the Ambassador Apartments on 49th Ave. These apartments were, and still are, right around the corner from the old Hilltop. I would often go for walks around the area and always thought the original 4911 building had such an understated poshness compared to other buildings in Dundee. All at once a California Regency feel crossed with a Cape Cod-East Coast country flair. Moneyed, exceptional design, in Miss Cassette’s early assessment.
The History of Hilltop House Restaurant
The Hilltop House Restaurant, 4911 Dodge St., was started in 1941 by Raymond and Mildred Matson. Mrs. Mabel Hansen was also a part owner. Mrs. Hansen was Mildred’s mother. Alfred and Mabel Hansen were long time Omaha restauranteurs. In fact, Alfred and Mabel Hansen owned the original land that Hilltop House was built on. The Hansen’s also reportedly owned the Elwood and Ambassador apartment buildings to the west of the restaurant. I had also read that they owned the Mildred Apartments but I could not find a history on that building in directories from that time, which was odd to me.
Elwood Apartments at 101-103 S 49th Ave. Additional address and entrance on Dodge Street, northside.
Ambassador Apartments at 111 S 49th Ave. These were going to be condominiums but it looks from the website that they are still renting apartments.
Harbor Room. Photo used with kind permission by Linda Matson Anderson.
The Hilltop House Food
Hilltop House was quickly considered one of the top restaurants in Omaha, serving home-cooked style food. The kind of real food, made with real ingredients that we are all truly starving for now. They were known for their creamed chicken on a biscuit, homemade soups, chicken salad, hamburger steaks and seafoods, fruit and cream pies. As late as the 70’s Peter Citron continued to write lovingly of the Hilltop House. In his articles he mouth-wateringly described his favorite baked chicken with gravy, steamed brisket, baked game hen and ham croquettes. Interesting that he mentioned a change in ordering style in the mid 70’s, “you will fill out your own order.” As my grandmother had described many times, the desserts were varied and apparently “to die for.” Strawberry shortcake, pumpkin, cherry or nut cream pie, bread pudding, Bavarian mint, fruit cobbler cake and apple crunch were on the everyday menu. I have been assured that every slice of Hilltop House’s desserts were sheer perfection.
Original Hilltop House menu provided with permission by the Omaha Public Library. Check out their incredible flickr Omaha menu collection site:
OMAHA MENU COLLECTION
That Hilltop House Look
Another part of Hilltop House’s appeal was the decor. People could not get enough of the knotty pine woodwork and varied dining areas. The Matson’s designed a Cape Cod Room, a Danish Room, a Duck Room, the Garden Room and the Red Rooster Lounge. Was this straight out of the Official Preppy Handbook? Doesn’t it all sound divine? My mother remembers the Red Rooster Lounge being for Men Only. Now that is very old school East Coast, indeed. I could not find proof of this particular statement. I did find on one Omaha website, that in its later years the Hilltop House became popular with gay men. Now this makes sense to me. Can you imagine sitting in one of the dining areas, looking out from those gorgeous windows as the traffic rolls by on Dodge? I included an absolutely fantastic article about the expansion of the Hilltop House and a wonderful description of the decor from the Omaha World Herald, January 14, 1951. (See below.) The article explains that the Hilltop House expansion involved connecting the restaurant at 4911 with the Mildred Apartment House to the south. This is the additional apartment building of the Hansen’s that I could not track previously. Mystery solved. In the background of the photo you can see the Dundee Towers on 49th Street being newly built.
Cape Cod Room, looking toward entrance. Photo used with kind permission by Linda Matson Anderson.
In 1962 Ray Matson and Hilltop House won the Taste of Nebraska Award. According to phrasing on the back of the fabulous Hilltop House postcards, they also carried the Duncan Hines seal of approval. Ray Matson was also the first Nebraska president of the Restaurant Association in 1947 and 1948.
End of an Era
After 39 successful years at the Hilltop House, the Matson’s, understandably, wanted to retire. The year was 1979. The OWH article below, from July 18, 1979, broke the news to a surely disapointed Omaha. I couldn’t help but wonder if the Dr.Wally Duff mentioned is Omaha’s best otolaryngologist? Also of note, a mention of reopening the Red Rooster Lounge. It must have fallen from favor for a while. The new developers’ idea was to recreate it for the new, young, sophisticated crowd “who would like to sip without disco…”
The 1980 and 1981 Omaha city directories still had Hilltop House listed under its familiar operating name. This OWH article of June 1981 made an announcement of Hilltop House (shockingly) becoming a Mexican restaurant. Apparently Bob and Kay Mackie had bought Hilltop House after a recent success with their newly opened Mexican restaurant called Roberto’s out on 90th and Center. The couple also owned the Old Mill Lounge. The article hints that the previous partnership, who had bought the property in 1979, could not make a go of it due to “lack of restaurant experience.”
Roberto’s Hilltop must have made it for a little while at least because I was able to find its offerings listed under a new restaurants section in the OWH in 1981. Mexican and the Hilltop House classic, creamed chicken, seems like it might have been an odd combination for Omaha at that time.
I never did find Roberto’s listed in the city directory. They must have been there a very short time. 1982 had 4911 listed as “vacant”. Hilltop House sat vacant in 1983 also. It wasn’t until 1985 that 4911 Dodge Street was listed as “Under Construction”, which, after all this dismal detective work, made me feel a bit of relief. 1986 brought Nan C, a fine women’s clothing shop onto the scene. Additionally Strategic Management Resources, Brian Zdan attorney, First American National Securities stock and bond brokers, A.L. Williams and Company Insurance and Bill Ramsey Associates Inc moved in the other, now divided offices. 1989 found 4911 listed under Nan C but 4913 had been broken into formal, individual suites.
Nan C has maintained this beautiful location all of these years since 1986. This really is quite a glorious store, if you’ve never been. Currently the other offices are leased by Pasutech, Paul J. Strawhecker Inc and Alcoholics Anonymous central office.
In beginning to research this article, I called Linda Matson Anderson, daughter of Ray and Mildred. She is a realtor in town and understandably busy as the spring season builds. I found her to be both very friendly and direct. She was so kind to let me use some of her family’s photos. She was very firm that I would not be getting anything else from her–apparently people have claimed to have the various, delicious, original Hilltop House recipes and or have tried to get them. I completely understood her protective nature. I assured her I cannot cook. We will have coffee at some point and discuss all of these very good things. I was able to share with her some brief memories of her parent’s restaurant from my child’s eye.
I still get the same feeling when I pass by Hilltop House. Clean, simple luxury. I can occasionally hear my grandmother say, “Oh the Hilltop House”…and on those days, that is quite comforting.
I welcome your comments and would certainly love to hear about your memories of the Hilltop House. To enable comments, please click on the header title. Thank you, Omaha friends!
Oh, the Hilltop House, the Saturday luncheon for “girls” young and old. I think the Red Rooster met its demise after women’s lib, who ever heard of a men’s only bar?
I am sure you are right. That makes sense. To my knowledge there might still be some men’s clubs on the East Coast–of the Ivy League scotch and cigar tradition. Maybe disbanded only recently.
For a time about 15 years ago I collected and framed vintage restaurant postcards from Omaha. They remain in our dining room. I have one of the Hilltop House… a place I hadn’t heard of. One day my grandmother (who was from Norfolk, NE not Omaha) walked through the dining room and said, “The Hilltop House! I remember eating there.”
Oh how cool! I bet you have some real gems…obviously they stir good conversation.
A woman friend of mine took another woman and were the first to order a meal in the men’s only room. I’ll get her to tell the story. Congratulations on another wonderful story of an Omaha landmark!
O M G!! We must hear this story! Just fabulous…
Wonderful article on the Hilltop House! Remember it fondly….and also remember that 3 well known interior designers Berry, Buckingham & Kuper opened a studio in the East section for the building which later became a custom jewelers, Mark Edwards! It was a very desirable location in it’s day…
Thank you so much. I do love these comments. I had no idea about Mark Edwards’ studio nor the interior design firm. What time period was that? So glorious to imagine. Thanks again
I’ve been binge reading all of your articles this morning – I’m obsessed! I grew up in a small Nebraska town, and coming to Omaha when I was a girl (early/mid 90’s) was such a treat. Now that my husband and I have made Omaha our home, we often drive around town, looking at all of these old buildings and wondering what it used to be like. We always feel like we were born in the wrong era! Now about the Hilltop House – I’m convinced that a restaurant like this could totally thrive today! It would be such a novelty – a retro inspired menu and interior. My 80 year old father-in-law worked his entire career at Union Pacific, and often tells us stories of amazing restaurants in Omaha from back in the day. One that I remember him mentioning (if his memory serves him) was a cafeteria or restaurant at the top of the Brandeis building – is this true? Anyway, just wanted to let you know what an enjoyable morning I’ve had with my coffee and your blog. Thank you!
You make my heart soar! Thank you. I do appreciate this. I agree that the Hilltop House would be The Place now. It could be incredible. And yes, the Brandeis downtown had a number of restaurants. I have photos of them and have written about them on my FB page. I will get to all of those great places in time. Brandeis at the Crossroads also had many restaurants inside. It is bizarre to think about the amount of staff employed and patrons that must have flocked to this dept store in order to leverage five plus different restaurants, tea rooms and snack shops. Awesome. Thanks again.
That’s where I would frequently meet my father for a late lunch after school; the Brandeis Cafeteria. I attended Central High; my dad was the comptroller of Brodkey Jewelry Company.
Remember spring 1971, my grandparents took me to the Hilltop House to celebrate my graduating from High School
Oh, that sounds so nice…what a good memory that must be. Thanks for sharing.
My sisters worked there and one met her husband there!
Oh my goodness. How lovely. I imagine the after shift slice of pie!
Loved the Hilltop House. I remember at least one of my birthday parties there (as a young girl)! It was a special place.
Oh, I am so jealous! It must have been wonderful. Thanks for sharing this memory.
There was a large Aquarium in the entryway. I would sit & be fascinated by the fish whilst my parents had cocktails. Mom would have to gather me up when dinner arrived….
Oh this is so great. What an entertainment for a child. I do wish I could have seen it. Thanks for sharing this.
This was my grandparents restaurant. What a great article! Most of my childhood memories include the Hilltop House! Every Birthday, holiday…and the aquarium! That was my favorite! I also loved being in the kitchen with my grandpa, sneaking French fries and joking with his chef Hubert. I’m so happy so many people still have such fond memories of the Hilltop House!
Hello Amy, how nice to hear from you. I can’t imagine the behind the scenes view you were exposed to. People obviously treasured their Hilltop memories. What great stories! Thank you for commenting.
We lived in the neighborhood and, as a child of 8 or 9, I remember that very often after Sunday Mass at St. Margaret Mary’s, my parents and I would go to the Hilltop House for Sunday dinner. I always had the hamburger steak with mushroom sauce!
I also remember that there was often a wait to get a table, and I would spend my time looking at the framed portraits of every US President that graced the wall along the long, windowed hallway which ran parallel to 49th Street.
Do any of your readers remember another fine dining establishment just a little west of the Hilltop House called the Old English Inn? It’s now the home of Pageturners Lounge.
Dan, this is so vivid. Thanks for writing in. I hope to do a story about the Olde English Inn, as I’ve only just heard of it in this last year of investigation. My family never spoke of it, that I can recall, and I look forward to digging in. Maybe others will write.
I can actually say that I went to this restaurant at least a few times before it closed. Yes, the food was wonderful, and the place had such a pleasant homey feel. I remember getting the pickled herring appetizer and enjoying it thoroughly, those that is something I would probably never consider eating today.
It was almost a rite of passage, the first time your grandmother, or your Aunt, took you to lunch at the Hilltop House! You dressed up, wore white gloves and felt quite grown up! Mostly I remember the desserts and the wonderful rolls! I was heartbroken when I heard it had closed.
As a child my grandparents and mother would take me to the Hilltop House for Sunday lunch (late 60’s). I can remember for desert being served green jello with a dollop of mayonnaise on it. What a great place and great memories.
We Midwesterners do love our jello with a bit of mayonnaise, don’t we? Thanks for ringing in. Great memories.
I really enjoyed your article. Thanks! Brought back lots of memories. My first REAL job was at The Hilltop House. That would be around 1975-6. I was 14-15 years old. Everyone that worked there was very cool and we were all good friends. It was a very family atmosphere. There were employees there that had already worked there for decades (I knew that wasn’t me.). There was a group of teenagers who worked there and most of us were basically little stoners who were just trying to figure out our place in life, but we took the job very seriously. I started out loading dirty dishes in to the dishwasher conveyor, and worked my way up to pot washer on the food line, and eventually to food prep. I was the guy that loaded those Prime Ribs in the 400° oven!
I recently found a couple people I used to work with there in the Forgotten Omaha Facebook group. Overall, I have fond memories of working there and the people I worked with, and yes, the food was as good as you think it was! Best Prime Rib you ever ate!
Thanks for the cool article.
5111 ruggles st
I worked there with a douchebag named hub ..He was a chef.I made it a day or two as i dishwashed my ass off…I partied with john a waiter there..
Regarding men-only bars and restaurants: The Bombay Bar at the Fontenelle Hotel (which was the bar on the lower level that got renamed after Sheraton closed the amazing Bombay Room – which was also a bar – on the lobby level) was men-only until 5pm. How eager the ladies must have been to come streaming into a bar that was probably full of smoke and day drinkers 😉
For whatever reason, my folks never took us kids to the Hilltop House, however, like most my mom used to recall the great dishes and especially the desserts they offered. My folks were married not long after WWII, and when they lived mid-town they ate there often. Now I realize what I had missed in all my formative years!
By today’s standards the Hilltop House décor is horribly out of style, but I can see how well it DID fit in say, around 1952! “Early American” was popular then, and each room probably had it’s own “theme” of design. As for gay men going there, won’t mention names but at the end the Hilltop was purchased by a member of the “community” in an effort to resurrect it, which didn’t work out. A modern version of the same traditions this place held would be KILLER today. There definitely isn’t near enough parking had it survived today!
My mother was a waitress at Hilltop House for several years – this would be in the early to mid-60’s when it was so incredibly popular and oh-so-glamorous place. Each year my Bluebird troop would have a Russell Stover chocolate sale – part of the national Camp Fire Girls/Bluebirds fund raising. During that time of year, on Saturday nights, I was given permission by Mr. Matson to sell Campfire Girls/Bluebirds Russell Stover chocolates wearing my Bluebird uniform to the elegant diners as they were leaving the private dining rooms. I recall the beautiful clothes worn by the customers – and the gorgeous dresses worn by the women – sequins, jewelry, incredibly high heels and hair -that 60’s look – so totally dazzling and grown-up – in my imagination I felt like I was on a movie set of a James Bond film – perhaps From Russia with Love?! There was a beautiful, enclosed porch and entrance hall where I would sell the boxes of candy. Thanks to the Hilltop House and Mr. Matson’s generosity for allowing me to sell what seemed like tons of boxes of Russell Stover chocolates – every year I was a Bluebird ‘top-seller,’ and annually earned two free weeks of ‘to-die-for’ summer camp at Harriet Harding Campfire Girls Camp – a dream come true all the way around for a little girl!
Our family had dinner at the Hilltop House often – every other month? Maybe it wasn’t that often but it sure seems like it was! I remember my ‘chilled tomato juice’ served on a little plate with a paper doily and the cracker basket – Rye Krisp with butter was my favorite. It still sounds delish! I don’t remember what else we ate, but now I am guessing that the reason we went so often was that my parents, my brother and I all found something satisfying.
Another commenter mentioned the fish tank but the attraction for us was the Wall of Presidents. The pictures show a long row of windows along the parking lot extending toward Dodge Street. It was essentially a hallway with chairs along the window side. Reading the articles and posts, I am guessing that it was a place for the lunch crowd to wait for a table. When we went at dinnertime the restaurant was nearly empty. On the wall opposite the chairs was a gallery of the US Presidents, with their name and dates of their terms in order. There was space at the end of the line and new portraits were added as they came into office. For many elections I pictured the new president at the end of the line. I wonder who got the last spot. I wish I could have taken my own kids to the Hilltop House. When in Omaha with them I would always point out where it used to be – right across the street from Zoob’s.
I was looking for photos and information about The Hilltop House and ran across your article from 2016. I worked there for about 10 years in the 70’s and 80’s; I probably waited on your mother and grandmother. Recently I attended a funeral for one of our coworkers and we lost a Hilltopper not long ago. I still have a close friendship with a couple of cohorts from those days and several others were in attendance and in conversations we had, a reunion was a common theme. If you had any thoughts on how to go about such an endeavor I would love to hear from you. I am not a fan of social platforms and don’t subscribe to them. If You are still in contact with Linda you have my permission to give her my contact information; I would love to hear from her. The Hilltop House was truly one of a kind.