As co-owner of Upstairs at the Pudding and later Upstairs on the Square, Mary-Catherine Deibel has been the unofficial mayor of Harvard Square since 1982. She served professors and politicians, legends and luminaries at the restaurant, which closed on New Year’s Eve in 2013. Today, the beloved hostess is development director at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. True to her history, she has instituted several culinary programs, including an upcoming food series spotlighting Harvard Square chefs Michael Scelfo (Alden & Harlow, Longfellow Bar, Waypoint), Tony Maws (Craigie on Main, The Kirkland Tap & Trotter), and Jimmy Salomone (Parsnip, which replaced Upstairs).
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? The Ritz-Carlton dining room as a first-semester freshman at Newton College of the Sacred Heart [in 1968]. My roommate’s uncle took us. We had wine, an expensive dinner, and it was fabulous! I had a rack of lamb and vichyssoise.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? Kitchen workers work so hard and make less than tipped employees. I was very much a front-of-house person. It takes different talents, and those talents are just as necessary and hard to cultivate as the talents of a chef. At the same time, there shouldn’t be such a divide between the amounts that people get paid. Many people like Danny Meyer have tried to assuage it. But it’s a tough thing to do in this age of tipping. I don’t have an answer, but it’s always a problem. Without a dishwasher, you’re nowhere.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? Enormously. I can’t think of one thing that has changed more than restaurants. There [were] a few good restaurants — Anthony’s Pier 4, The Ritz, Locke-Ober — but not much else, and almost nothing chef-owned. And now, even as a total restaurant fan and groupie, I cannot literally keep up with the openings. And [restaurants] are mostly chef-owned, highly personal, and don’t take millions of dollars to open. All of this is very good for your general eater. The second thing is, it used to be that well-off people went out, and now everyone does.
What other restaurants do you visit? Being in Harvard Square, I frequent lots of restaurants here: I love Benedetto. I visit at least once a week, at least at the bar. Les Sablons, Alden & Harlow, and Parsnip, where Upstairs used to be, is an excellent restaurant. And then Toscano is right next door to my office, so it’s convenient and great. Those are my go-tos. I’m really into and loving poke as a sort of a takeout lunch or dinner. It’s wonderfully healthy. And when I go to Boston, gosh, I love No. 9 Park. And I love, love, love Scampo. And, you know, I love the Bristol Lounge. I always go there at Christmas. We used to have our business meetings — ha, ha — at the Bristol Lounge. It’s always great.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? When I was 7, my parents took me to the Pump Room in Chicago. The waiters laughed when I ordered a hamburger. As a surprise, they bought me a chocolate cake with white icing and a sparkler on top. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. That moment, still, it’s such a clear-cut memory. It made me love restaurants. It sealed the deal.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? You know, I’ve had many over the years, but one just happened lately. I was here with relatives and took them to a restaurant, which shall remain nameless. We ended up chatting for quite a while. We were closing out the restaurant, but for the last half of the meal, nobody checked in on us. And you could see everyone in the open kitchen on phones. It drove me crazy! Nobody should be sitting in full view of the customer on a phone, being ignored. That’s a real gripe. . . . They should be concentrating on you!
How could Boston become a better food city? Honest to goodness, I don’t know how to answer that. I think we’re a fabulous food city! In every case, I can name a restaurant here in our beloved community that’s just as good as in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Barring New York, I think Boston is a world-class city. It’s right under New York, Paris, and Beijing. I think in Boston, the diversity and the number of ambitious chefs is unparalleled. How could it be better? I don’t know. Keep going. Maybe more food trucks!
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Adventurous, kind, and careful with a dollar.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Everyone says small plates, but at this age, I like small plates. Stand-up eating. I don’t like to eat standing up.
What are you reading?
Actually, I’m reading Jane Austen because at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, one of the great benefits of being employed here is you take a free class every term. I’m just finishing up my second term of Jane Austen. It’s been awesome. We’ve been reading all of her novels, people of all ages. Most I’d read before, but it’s interesting to read them all in a row and again.
How’s your commute? Most of the time it’s fine. I’m 4½ miles away, and I have a parking space. In rush hour, I need to leave at least 45 minutes ahead.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Nettles!
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? My family lives across the country, in Dallas and in Denver. They have wonderful, great Tex-Mex. We have some serious Mexican restaurants, but I’m talking about really good Tex-Mex. I’d love to see that here.
‘[Restaurants] are mostly chef-owned, highly personal, and don’t take millions of dollars to open. All of this is very good for your general eater.’
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Biba. I also loved Maison Robert. And Hamersley’s.
Who was your most memorable customer? We had so many famous people for Man of the Year and Woman of the Year. I would say my favorite was Madeleine Albright. We did a lunch for her with the Harvard Book Store. I was able to sit at the table with her. She was so personable, so wonderful, so down to earth. Jacques Pepin was a wonderful customer, as was Ruth Reichl. Again, she was so approachable and so down to earth, easy to talk to, full of bon mots. Just great. She’s just a nice person.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I would get Lydia Shire to cook me a lobster, or maybe Jasper [White]! I’d get Jasper to cook me his favorite lobster dish. It’s with cognac — this wonderful, rich, herb-filled lobster preparation that isn’t creamy, exactly, but it’s sautéed and buttered up. He made it famous in his cookbooks and at his restaurant down on the wharf. And I’d love to have Deborah Hughes make me a delicious salad. And Lydia can make me creamed spinach. We’ll have a dinner party.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.