Out East: King of the Hill


The brother’s McCullough, along with partner Paul Nordby, breathe new life into the iconic Hilltop Station

By Pamela Kleibrink Thompson
Photography by Copper Chadwick

Years ago, prospectors ventured into the mountains just east of Boise in search of gold. Today, three young men are venturing into the mountains again, but this time, instead of employing mining equipment, they are driving forklifts and wielding hammers as they renovate the old Hilltop Café.

Years ago, brothers Tate and Eric McCullough and their friend Paul Nordby bought a cabin near Idaho City and would regularly visit the Hilltop Café during their travels. Tate recalls, “It was always such a great place. Not your typical roadside greasy spoon. When folks left, they left with a smile on their face. I want to bring it back to that.”

The Hilltop Café is an Ada County icon and the brothers McCullough, along with Nordby are working hard to restore the Hilltop to its former glory. They also plan to open a convenience store alongside the café at the Highland Summit and will rename the business Hilltop Station.

Tate relates a bit of its history: “It opened originally around 1952 as the Sportsman Cafe. It was always a great meeting place for the folks from Boise and the folks from Robie Creek, Wilderness Ranch, and others all the way up to Idaho City.” The restaurant was most recently named Kodiak Grill and operated for about three years until 2011 when it closed. Kodiak Grill was featured on an episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” But even when it was the Kodiak Grill people still referred to it as the Hilltop so Tate decided to name the new enterprise Hilltop Station.

Tate enthuses, “We want to bring it back to what it used to be. When folks talk about their memories of the place, they invariably talk about an era roughly 20 to 30 years ago. We want to bring it back there.”

Recently, the trio faced a major obstacle to realizing their goal. They couldn’t get a license to sell beer and wine by the glass. The county code requires dining establishments to get 75% of their neighbors within 1000 feet to consent to the establishment gaining a license. The Hilltop has only 2 neighbors within 1000 feet. One gave consent and the other neighbor did not reply to their consent form for more than 3 months. They applied for a license and were granted the ability to sell beer and wine in the store only. They appealed the county commissioners’ decision.

In early May, more than one hundred people came to the hearing at the Ada County Courthouse. “The Ada and Boise County community showed up in full force to show their support for the Hilltop,” states Tate. “It was inspiring. The commissioners listened to the public testimony, and granted us our beer and wine license for on-premises consumption.”

Chef Steve Rhodes is acting as the consultant on the dining side, designing the menu and the layout of the restaurant. Tate points out, “He has helped create wonderful restaurants in the past, such as Richards and Cafe Vicino.” The menu will be family oriented and feature “Eclectic Lake Fare including burgers, sandwiches, fries, and salads.”

Paul Nordby came up with the official slogan for the Hilltop – “It’s All Downhill from Here.” But things are looking up for this icon, and those who remember it fondly will have a chance to return again and again. And, as Tate points out, it’s only 8 miles from Boise – definitely worth the adventure east to have a feast at the Hilltop soon.