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Food

UpStairs on the Square has staying power

Deborah Hughes (standing) and Mary-Catherine Deibel, friends for 40 years, are marking their 30th year owning UpStairs on the Square, known for its decor, camp, imagination, eccentricity ­— and its food and wine.
Deborah Hughes (standing) and Mary-Catherine Deibel, friends for 40 years, are marking their 30th year owning UpStairs on the Square, known for its decor, camp, imagination, eccentricity ­— and its food and wine. PHOTOS BY BRIAN FEULNER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

CAMBRIDGE — Justin Timberlake and Jackson 5 songs are playing in the dining room, which overlooks a busy, grassy square and a Staples. Students greet each other with air kisses, men in oxford-striped shirts — jackets slung over painted wood chairs — sip red wine. A woman in a traditional Indian sari peruses the menu with her granddaughter.

It’s a Tuesday night, not typically a busy time in most restaurants. But at UpStairs on the Square, there’s a palpable festivity that suits a dining room dominated by carnivalesque flourishes (hand-painted zebras on the walls) and calls to mind the beauty salon scene in “Steel Magnolias” when Sally Fields’s character declares, “The sanctuary looks like it’s been hosed down with Pepto-Bismol.”

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The eclectic clientele and the zany decor have kept the capricious two-floor Harvard Square restaurant a go-to institution for 10 years, and for 20 years before that around the corner in Harvard University’s Hasty Pudding Club. Today, surprisingly, many customers are sealing business deals and, not surprisingly, proposing marriage, conducting weddings, and celebrating graduations and bar mitzvahs. The whimsy is a stark contrast from the slick design sensibility that defines many dining rooms today. For longtime patrons, that’s part of the draw.

Bill Littlefield, host of WBUR’s sports program “Only a Game,” married at the Hasty Pudding location 20 years ago, and sometimes visits UpStairs on his wedding anniversary. “The day of the reception there was a bucket on the stairs because there was water coming through the roof,” says Littlefield. “It’s just always been a fun place to go.”

Owners Mary-Catherine Deibel and Deborah Hughes roll their eyes when they think about how little they knew 30 years ago. “When we started, we didn’t know how to read an income statement,” says Deibel. “We thought of the concept as we went along.”

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“The food model was always changing,” adds Hughes. “But we always appreciated a communal model and great ingredients.” The women complete each other’s sentences, as most longtime business partners might do, though not necessarily the way the sentence was intended to end. Deibel is known for wearing oversize baubles and always fighting her weight (she has hosted a weight loss group she put together called “Down at Up”). She spends most evenings greeting guests. Hughes has a proclivity for bright lipstick and giant tinted glasses. She speaks at a fast clip and exudes energy. She fixes her attention on the kitchen.

The pair met 40 years ago while working at Peasant Stock, a Cambridge restaurant the late Julia Child frequented. Hughes, who fell in love with Italian cooking while training in Italy with cookbook author Marcella Hazan, was an early subscriber to seasonal vegetables, handmade pasta, and other traditions that are now commonplace. The restaurant they opened at the Hasty Pudding Club was called UpStairs at the Pudding. The third-floor walk-up space gave the club revenue flow and introduced the new restaurateurs to an elite clientele.

In the Winthrop Street location, stairways are narrow, hallways zigzag around sharp corners, and eccentric leopard print carpet runs throughout the upper level. The first floor is called the Monday Club Bar; the second floor the Soiree Room.

UpStairs draws all kinds of customers because “it’s got character. Where else can you get that?,” says Philip Jacobs, an Arlington resident who ran a startup he later sold to Time Inc. On many occasions over 15 years in the high-tech sector, he has brought prospective business partners or competitors to UpStairs for lunch. Jacobs lets Deibel know he’s bringing big shots and needs her help. “There’ve been times when I wanted the person to know whose turf he’s on, to throw him off his game. Mary-Catherine did it in a way that wasn’t campy or staged. That’s part of the character you get from being around a long time, from people who know what they’re doing.”

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“I’ve known the owners for about 40 years,” writes cellist Yo-Yo Ma in an e-mail. He has followed them since Peasant Stock, which he describes as “a restaurant that had live music, where an undergraduate could go, imagine, play and get a FREE meal!” He calls Deibel and Hughes “originals; creative, quirky, warm, hospitable, and socially conscious. It’s no surprise that there are so many loyal customers.”

Recent changes at UpStairs include the addition of a pizza bar and a panini grill for more casual options. Chef Susan Regis keeps the menu relevant and the wine program has won recognition from Wine Spectator magazine every year in its current location.

Running a restaurant is a demanding gig. Sad stories of how the intensity ruins friendships and marriages are legion. Hughes was married to the late Michael Silver, original chef at UpStairs at the Pudding, but they divorced a few years after opening. Deibel, who works 12-hour days, gets to spend long stretches of time with her husband on weekends, when he helms the coat check. The women’s friendship seems to only strengthen with time.

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UpStairs’s staying power is not unique in the neighborhood. Grendel’s Den and Cafe Algiers both opened in 1971. Casablanca started as a bar in 1955, a restaurant in 1977. Charlie’s Kitchen has been in the burger business since 1951.

In the case of UpStairs, you have to wonder if it’s the restaurant, the location, or the quirkiness everyone has come to expect.


Liza Weisstuch can be reached at liza.weisstuch@gmail.com.