Busy Sunrise Highway and Merrick Road run through Rockville Centre's downtown, yet it's a walker's village. Within a few blocks you can stroll to an art studio, a movie theater, ice cream shops and restaurants serving Belgian waffles or hibachi steak. Here are scenes from a recent Saturday night:
Families and singles sit at tables, painting pottery they've selected from shelves that line the wall. Two stacks of free panini sandwiches sit on a table at the front of the room. It's BYOB night, and some have brought wine.
David Wilensky, 49, of Valley Stream, Susan Casey, 33, of East Rockaway and her niece, Brianna Filiano, 7, are working on a ceramic butterfly ornament, a martini magnet and a penguin soap dish. When done, the ceramics will be glazed and fired by shop workers.
For some, the pottery painting is an excuse for a needed break. Self-described "working moms" Kristin Kelsch, 36, an accountant, and Jennifer Hawthorne, 38, amagazine editor, both of Rockville Centre, are sharing a bottle of red Zinfandel as they paint. With Dad baby-sitting at home tonight, "it's girls' night out," Kelsch says.
The recently opened restaurant with the blue-lit bar is busy tonight. Seated at one of the hibachi tables are Winston Sylvester, 54, of Hewlett, Michelle Stephens, 42, of North Woodmere, and their daughter, Zoe, 6. When the chef is not whipping up fried rice on the grill, he's squirting sake from a water bottle into diners' mouths (Zoe gets a squirt of water). "The service is great, and the food is great," Sylvester says.
Outside, Jeff Bloch, 43, of Sayville and Melissa Hawxhurst, 45, of Lynbrook, who originally met online, are winding up their third date. "We came for the sushi," says Bloch, who had a spicy tuna roll and other creations. The evening cost them $80 including tip.
One of the more popular spots for ice cream, it has 133 flavors. Inside, Emma Sueiro of Rockville Centre is celebrating her 11th birthday with her parents, Anne, 48, and Gary, 49, and a group of cousins.
"They gave me a free topping because it was my birthday," Emma reports. The family often goes downtown for fun and planned to continue the birthday celebration the next night at a local restaurant.
Hang out in Rockville Centre for a while, and you're likely to hear about the Belgian waffles here. Thomas Fee, 45, of South Hempstead, says he goes to the restaurant three times a month. Tonight, he's sitting down to a waffle smothered with vanilla chocolate chip ice cream. "Rockville Centre's got great nightlife, it's got great food, great entertainment, and it's a safe community," he says.
At yet another popular local eatery, The Drama Kings musical duo is entertaining the crowd. You order your sandwich by number (18, for instance, has marinated spicy grilled chicken and black bean hummus). The Belgian fries are also a hot item.
"Usually, I get a number 20 -- roast beef, marinara sauce, fresh mozzarella and garlic spread," says James Torborg, 24, of Island Park.
Rockville Centre has more than a dozen local bars -- and the village is particularly known for its range of Irish pubs. At Monaghan's, you can order a shepherd's pie and other Irish specialties. Owner Niall Gunn is almost always in the crowd, greeting guests and stopping by for a chat. Gunn prides himself on his drafts, especially Guinness prepared with the traditional 160-second pour.
"It tastes more like Guinness if it's poured correctly," says Gunn, serving up another creamy pint.