Food & dining

Getting Salty

Getting Salty with Carol Downs of Bella Luna & The Milky Way

Carol Downs
Carol Downs

Carol Downs runs Jamaica Plain’s much-loved Bella Luna & The Milky Way, known for pizza, karaoke, bowling, and even weddings.

“We set out to create jobs and community through delicious food, beverages, art, and music, and to be a gathering place where everyone feels comfortable,” she says.

It’s working: The family-friendly space celebrates its 25th birthday this year.

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What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? I came to Boston to visit someone — who would become my husband. We had a mega-date. He lived in Jamaica Plain, and our date started at Sorella’s in Hyde Square. We had breakfast. I think I opened my mouth full of food and joked. It was a great beginning of a date. I think we had pancakes. Each table had a little city name and drawing over it.

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What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? [Restaurants] play such a key role in the business districts around the city. We employ people. Our employees tend to live in the neighborhoods and spend their money in the neighborhoods. We create foot traffic for other businesses near us. We make streets safer because we’re open longer hours and create activity. We need an affordable city. We work hard to pay our employees living wages. It’s disheartening to know, when we give them raises, it’s going to their landlord. You see a lot of restaurants open and can’t make it past their first lease. We need an affordable city to live in and work in. We need affordable housing and affordable commercial [spaces].

How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? We opened in 1993. I don’t think anybody had cellphones when we opened! Even the personal computing age hadn’t quite taken off. It was all on paper. Print marketing. Advertising in newspapers and fliers. I think it’s different now, how we relate to our guests. People can share experiences so immediately and with so much personal input. They can take a photo, describe how they feel in your space. So many channels of engaging have transformed the restaurant business. Owners have to be fluent in these forms of engagement. It’s challenging. You have to keep the guest experience fresh and new and constantly be changing.

What other restaurants do you visit? We tend to dine locally. I live in Roslindale. If I’m out with my husband and want to relax, we might go to West on Centre in West Roxbury. They have a really nice bar. The cocktails are excellent. We’ve been taking our kids for 20 years to Galway House in Jamaica Plain, which is an old-school pub with classic American comfort food. For me, going out is about being able to relax. We have a long history there, and the same servers have worked there since our kids were little. And we order a lot of takeout from Shanti in Roslindale.

What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? I had no idea! I was a philosophy major. I did work in the dining hall and became supervisor of the dish room, which should have given me a little hint that that’s the way I was headed. I went to [the University of Virginia] and stayed in Charlottesville. I was a carpenter’s helper and at night I was a server. I always liked it. Restaurants are where good people enjoy good food together. There’s nothing better than that.

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What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? Whenever I go to LaGuardia Airport and see the iPads at every food venue in the airport, where you have to sit down and order through an iPad, I find the experience really horrible. There is no hospitality, no greeting, and, in fact, the service is slow. That, to me, is the lowest of the low restaurant experience, and it makes me upset. . . . It’s a relational activity, and to see it mechanized, I can’t stand it.

How could Boston become a better food city? More coverage and attention to neighborhood restaurants. There’s a lot of attention given to high-end, chef-driven restaurants. Whether it’s Brighton, Hyde Park, JP, East Boston, I’d like to see attention paid to the mom-and-pop, family level. That would be good for Boston, to have people more aware of those places.

Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Loyal, looking for quality, and engaged in their restaurant experience. It means a lot to them when they go out.

What’s the most overdone trend right now? Counter service. I don’t know if it’s overdone, but it’s not my favorite trend. I think it’s going to be a successful trend, but I really like service. I like to go out and feel relaxed and have someone to talk to and order through and hear what their favorite foods are.

What are you reading? I have a reading list that stems from a visit that I took to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Going to that museum was very powerful and made me realize I know very little about the black experience in America and black history. It’s called “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.” Not a very light book. But I feel like, I went to a good public high school, one of the best public universities in the country, and I didn’t learn anything about a lot of our history, so I’m trying to re-educate myself.

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How’s your commute? I only live 3 miles from my restaurant, and I’m driving at off times. I come in at 11 or 12 and go home around 8. Sometimes I walk, if I’m feeling ambitious.

What’s the one food you never want to eat again? I’m not a big raw fish person. I grew up in the Midwest. I love sushi but don’t eat the raw fish.

What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? Having lived in Virginia, there’s not a lot of Southern food in Boston, or Texas or Memphis barbecue.

What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Five Seasons. They had a lot of good vegetarian options. It was in JP. What happened is they moved to Brookline, expanded, and then weren’t able to make it in the bigger space.

Who was your most memorable customer? Walter and Mary Bentson. They’ve been coming 25 years and do fund-raisers for ALS. We cook sausages, hang out. They’re in our employee hall of fame because they’re key members of our team. They come to all of our staff parties, and we love them very much. They even have gold-plated, wooden name plaques at their bar seats!

If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I’d have to eat at Bella Luna! I’d get a gin martini and our nachos.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.