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Tropical hot spots on Long Island

Patrons dance to live Latin music at the

Patrons dance to live Latin music at the restaurant and bar Havana Central at Roosevelt Field in Garden City. The Cuban-inspired restaurant offers live music several nights a week. Credit: Daniel Brennan

It's one thing to capture the essence of Caribbean culture through music and food, but it's quite another to create an authentic atmosphere where people can socialize, dance or just relax for the evening. You don't have to take a trip to the tropics to experience Jamaican jams or lively Cuban ambience -- here are three spots in Nassau County that'll take you from New York's fall chills to the heat of the Caribbean -- at least for a few hours.

1. DUNNS RIVER LOUNGE

93 N. Park Ave., Rockville Centre

INFO 516-764-6540, dunnsriverlounge.com

COVER CHARGE $10 nightly after 10

DANCE FACTOR Medium

THE CROWD Early 20s through 50-somethings

THE SCENE Named after a well-known attraction in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, how does one intimate restaurant manage to attract people in their early 20s and those in their mid-50s with neither age group feeling out of place? A live Caribbean band helps, says Shakera Singletary, 31. "I feel comfortable," says the registered nurse from Westbury, who came on a recent night to "enjoy the food, music and company."

Happy hour is Wednesdays through Saturdays 5 to 7:30 p.m. with $5 cocktails and appetizers. There's R&B music 9 p.m.-midnight Thursdays, but the big night is Saturday, when live reggae bands draw a mature late-night crowd.

ON THE MENU Plenty of appetizers, ranging from $7 to $12, like Red Stripe jerk chicken satay ($9) and sweet escoveitched wings ($8).

2. HAVANA CENTRAL

Roosevelt Field, Garden City

INFO 516-739-7900, havanacentral.com

COVER CHARGE None

DANCE FACTOR High

THE CROWD Early 20s-50s

THE SCENE From the outside, Havana Central looks like a party. And it is -- the place is brimming with Cuban touches, from the canopied dining booths to the waitresses with tropical flowers in their hair. The live band and the dance floor are a bonus. "The band makes the people stop outside," says manager Jennifer Flores. "We give you guys that Cuban feel . . . that you're in Havana." Michael Lombardi, 33, a store manager from Patchogue, agrees, saying, "It's Long Island's slice of Cuba." Live bands play 7-11 p.m. Thursdays, 8-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 1-4 p.m. Sundays.

ON THE MENU Empanadas galore: beef picadillo, Cubano, chicken or shrimp sofrito, three-cheese and more ($3 each). If you're on a healthy kick, tropically tinged salads include sugar cane-lime chicken ($14.95) and a mango-salmon salad ($19.95).

3. THE WINNER'S CIRCLE

39 Post Ave., Westbury

INFO 516-997-4050, clubwc.com

COVER CHARGE $10 after 10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays

DANCE FACTOR High

THE CROWD Mostly 30s-50s

THE SCENE The scene is straight out of the 1987 film, "Dirty Dancing." People young and old showing off their sleek salsa moves on a packed dance floor. Many are regulars who come week after week, like Luis Chavez, 36. "It's like family club," says the electrician from Uniondale.

"You know everyone and the music is OK." DJs spin Fridays-Sundays starting at 8 p.m. The complimentary buffet at 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Sundays is always a big draw.

ON THE MENU The Friday/Sunday free buffet has pasta dishes, rice, grilled chicken sandwiches, salads and platters of fruit and cheese. Otherwise, there's a menu of appetizers such as chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, shrimp and empanadas ($5-$6).