Parker Kennedy’s Café Luna brings a taste of authentic Tuscan cuisine to Raleigh, while his wife, Nicole, enhances the restaurant’s Italian flavor with her paintings.
From the moment he saw the empty restaurant on the corner of Raleigh’s Moore Square, he knew they were home. “As soon as I saw it, my heart stopped,” Parker Kennedy says, “We’d found the place for Caffe Luna.”
After more than 20 years in New York City, the Raleigh native had returned with his wife and an idea for a restaurant. “I wanted a casual dining place, somewhere you could come in and get great food at reasonable prices,” Parker explains. “And because I’d been in the Italian wine business, Italian was the obvious choice.”
Parker’s dream of owning a restaurant started before he and is family left North Carolina in 1973. “I sold hot dogs at Hayes Barton pool in Raleigh during the summer,” he says with a smile, sitting in the sun-filled main dining room of Caffe Luna. “Then when I was 16, my father was transferred to New York.”
After college, Parker worked for more than 20 years as a wine buyer for importers such as Sherry-Lehmann and Moet Hennessy. “When I was still pretty new to the trade, I met an Italian gentleman by the name of Moreno who ran a restaurant,” he remembers. “He taught me the ropes and introduced me to the top Italian restaurant owners in New York City. So eventually about 90% of my business was with Italian restaurants.
Nicole’s father ran one of these establishments. “My family has a place on the Upper East Side, and Parker used to handle the wines,” she says, joining her husband at the table. “We met, got married, and he said, ‘Let’s move to Raleigh.’ I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
In Raleigh, the couple got a Small Business Administration loan, cashed out their savings account, and started looking for a location. “I wanted to be downtown because there weren’t many restaurants here,” Parker explains. “This space was a Chinese restaurant and was in pretty bad condition. But the building was great. It was built in 1912 and has hardwood floors and 14-foot-tall ceilings.”
They renovated the small front room and started thinking of a name for the new business. “We wanted it to sound casual. So we knew it would be ‘café’ something. Unfortunately, we used the Italian spelling. ‘Caffe’” Parker says with a grin. “That confused some people when they tried to find it in the phone book.”
Most weren’t confused, however. Within a year the 80-seat restaurant overflowed as hungry diners savored dishes such as bow tie pasta with fresh salmon or thinly sliced tuna carpaccio seasoned with a tangy citrus sauce.
“Business picked up, and soon we were running out of space. Then the bookstore next door closed. So we knocked out a wall, put in an arched doorway, and made that the Palm Room, “ Parker says. “The beauty parlor beside that closed, and we turned that into the Tuscan Room. Now we have 2 kitchens, 250 seats in 4 separate dining areas, all in addition to an outdoor terrace.” In keeping with Parker’s “great food at reasonable prices” philosophy, two people can enjoy elegant dinner including wine for $40 or less. Dinner entrees range from $11 to $15.
Sunlight pours through the tall picture windows in the café’s Tuscan Room, warming Nicole’s large oil painting of scenes from Italian villages. “When we first opened we didn’t have much money to spend on décor,” she says. “So I started painting these just to have something to hang on the walls. About six months later, somebody asked me if a particular on was for sale. I said, ‘Sure!’”
Although she’s painted since her high school days, Nicole didn’t satisfy her artistic side until moving to North Carolina. “I did the young artist thing for a while, but it was hard to make a living doing that in New York,” she says. “So I went into advertising and worked my way up to art director and vice president. I worked in advertising for 15 years, designing a lot of ads for print and TV.”
Not wanting to start all over again when they arrived in Raleigh, Nicole decided to forgo advertising and devote more time to her art career. “I was doing these large paintings in the den at home, and it got kind of messy,” she says. “I started looking for a studio.”
She found an empty storefront about a mile from the restaurant and opened Nicole’s Studio & Art Gallery. Before too long, like her husband, she had run out of room and was knocking out walls. “The place next door came up for grabs, so I rented it and expanded 2,500 square feet, says Nicole. “At first I was using it just to paint in, but more artists kept coming by and asking if they could exhibit their works. So I turned the front room into a gallery.”
Now Nicole exhibits works by about a dozen local and regional artists. “I try to run a warm and friendly place for artists,” she says. “I’m usually walking around with paint in my hair anyway, so it’s not as formal as some galleries. People seem to like that.”
Even though they aren’t moving at New York speed anymore, Parker and Nicole admit it still gets hectic running a restaurant an Dan art gallery. That’s why they try to escape every weekend.
“I have an antique wooden cabin cruiser that’s docked in Wrightsville Beach,” Parker says as he welcomes the night’s first diners to Café Luna. “It’s our refuge after a long week. We get on I-40, and in a few hours, we are floating on a boat. It’s like coming home.”
Parker’s 1929 Elco Classic cruiser is one of the only 400 wooden yachts that remain out of more than 7,00 built by the original Electric Launch Company (Elco) from the 1920s to 1949. “My dad bought it for $500 in the later seventies,” he says. “It had been sitting on land for a bout eight years, and the owner was about to shop it up for scrap. We spent months rebuilding it. That was a great way to learn about boats, and a great way for me to get to know my dad.”
James T. Black