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Landmark change in Saugus

As one of Route 1's biggest draws is set to be reborn, another faces wrecking ball

SAUGUS -- Five years after Weylu's closed and its owner served time for tax fraud, the palatial restaurant high atop Route 1 is about to be reborn. Tim Cheng, who owns a chain of buffet-style Chinese restaurants in New York and Connecticut, is set to open East Manor in April at the former Weylu's grand pagoda location. The 1,500-seat restaurant will feature Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Malaysian food.

"We have restored the long-vacant restaurant to its former grandeur," said Cheng. "I'm confident that East Manor will become Route 1's newest landmark as Weylu's was for many years."

Cheng purchased Weylu's for $4.2 million in 2002. The price included the 8.7-acre parcel and the 51,000-square-foot, three-story restaurant. Construction crews have been renovating the interior, fixing broken sprinkler systems, and replacing thousands of water-damaged ceramic tiles.

An April opening may be a bit ambitious. A tour of the facility this week found unfinished floors, walls that need plaster, and exposed ceilings.

Planning Board approval is still required for changes to the entrance that will include a canopy on the stairway, said Fred Varone, the town's building inspector. Cheng must still get a food license from the Board of Selectman. Since the previous owner sold its liquor license, Cheng will have to buy one.

Saugus Town Manager Andrew Bisignani said much of the delay stems from Chen's use of unlicensed labor and the failure to get the required permits. "We've had to shut them down several times," said Bisignani. "And we've had to keep our eye on that location to make sure everything is being done according to code."

Weylu's, once one of the biggest draws on the busy Route 1 commercial strip, was built by founder Rick Chang at the height of the building boom in 1989 for $13 million. The restaurant's giant pagoda entrance was hard to miss from the highway. Inside, the opulent building featured Asian art, waterfalls, and authentic Chinese fixtures.

But by the late 1990s, business had slowed and Chang faced considerable debt. He failed to pay the mortgage, real estate tax bills, and water and sewer fees. In 1999, the Bank of China foreclosed on the property.

Chang was later sentenced to 20 days in the Suffolk County House of Correction after he pleaded guilty to unemployment tax fraud charges.

Weylu's is not the only landmark to undergo changes along Saugus's section of Route 1. Weddings Inc., the bridal shop that closed in the late 1990s, will be razed this summer for use by the Massachusetts Highway Department. In its heyday, the store outfitted more than 1,500 wedding parties annually.

Mass Highway purchased the half-acre Weddings site in 2001 for $1.3 million, fearing that any new retail shop at the location would be a safety hazard, said spokesman Jon Carlisle. Once the building is torn down, the site will be used for storage, he said. Some Route 1 landmarks will remain unchanged. Although Frank Giuffrida, founder of the Hilltop Steak House, died last month, the 68-foot cactus-shaped sign outside the 1,400-seat restaurant will continue to bear his name.

Giuffrida invested $7,000 in the Route 1 location in 1961 and turned it into the region's best-known steakhouse. And motorists cannot miss the herd of life-size fiberglass cattle out front.

The restaurant was sold in 1999 to Richard Monfort at High Country Investors Inc. of Colorado.

"This place is the eighth wonder of the world, and we're not changing a thing," said Lenny DeRosa, Hilltop's vice president. "Families have come to know us because of Frank's name and we're keeping it -- and the cows."

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