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. Works and Days

Puttin' on the puddin'


Restaurateur Mary-Catherine Deibel
NC '72

Mary-Catherine Deibel NC '72. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

"It used to be a big deal to go to a restaurant," says Mary-Catherine Deibel. But at today's pace, "between takeout and going out," she observes, it rarely seems a special occasion. UpStairs on the Square, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, restaurant Deibel co-owns with Deborah Hughes, counters with a roster of award-winning chefs, a unique décor (described variously by critics as "a throwback to 1940s glamour" and "a Barbie bordello"), and a personal approach so thorough the reservation system includes notes like "had wedding here, two kids, remind MCD to say hello."

Deibel is known locally with her business partner ("I have two life partners, my husband and Deborah—and I probably spend more time with Deborah") for their first venture, UpStairs at the Pudding, which prospered for nearly 20 years before losing its lease in 2001. In December 2002, they reopened in a vacated theater with a space for "casual haute cuisine" and the fancier Soirée Room two flights up.

Officially, Hughes—who was the chef at the first UpStairs—oversees kitchen matters, and Deibel focuses on public relations and hospitality, although the line between the two women's roles gradually has blurred, Deibel says. Between meals, Deibel has what resembles an office job, with morning e-mails and afternoon meetings. During mealtimes, she mingles and smooths the day's wrinkles: an impatient party of six, an incognito critic, a query about the bitter green, trevisano, served charred atop the duck salad.

While a student at Newton College, Deibel supported herself waiting tables at Peasant Stock, a Somerville eatery owned by her theology professor, Jerry Pierce '64. "Even if I was doing the dishes I'd always sneak out to see who was there and to make sure the candles were lit," she says. Deibel worked there for 14 years, while pursuing graduate studies in English and an initial career managing classical music groups. A pile of New Yorker rejections at home testifies to that era, as does a cello that has hardly left its case since Deibel turned 31. That was the year she and Hughes pulled together a modest amount of capital, scouted locations around town until they saw a high-ceilinged space that cried out to be a dining room, and set their tables for the first time.

Nicole Estvanik


Photo: Mary-Catherine Deibel NC '72. By Gary Wayne Gilbert


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