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Wading River duck pond (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

Driving through downtown Wading River, there are still remnants of what the past might have looked like along this short, scenic stretch of tree-lined highway. Heading west along North Country Road, you pass a 19th-century congregational church building and a pair of duck ponds complete with sign warning drivers that waterfowl could cross at any moment.

It’s easy to imagine that this downtown area was once the part of town where neighbors exchanged gossip as they ran their daily errands. Even a child of the ’80s can recall a time when everyone in Wading River parked down near the Duck Ponds for a haircut and a doctor’s visit, an oil change or to mail a letter. A general store was a mainstay downtown from the early 1700s until about a decade ago. It’s the sort of small-town U.S.A. that still exists in pockets across the East End but mostly disappears once you cross into Brookhaven Town. Fittingly, downtown Wading River straddles the town between from Riverhead to Brookhaven.

Acai bowl from Brekky is as delicious as it is vibrant (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

As the community was built out, it seemed as if Wading River had outgrown the downtown’s usefulness to some extent, particularly as sprawling commercial development, including both strip malls and professional service buildings along the main road of Route 25A, pushed business away.

By 2013, obituaries were being written for downtown Wading River, including a piece in the Riverhead News-Review that included a quote from longtime civic leader Sid Bail who said he didn’t think the historic business district “could be described as healthy.”

“For whatever reason, they haven’t been able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” he said.

At La Plage, the French word for beach, outdoor diners are treated to the prime sunset views the beach offers (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

Perhaps it’s serendipitous that Bail used an anthropomorphic egg in his analogy because a few yolks have been whisked along downtown Wading River’s modest path to reconstruction in recent years. It’s food, and a wide variety of it in just a few small buildings, that has slowly brought people back to that quiet part of the hamlet.

“It’s a great little tucked away location,” said Carol Wendelken, a partner at North Tavern (2028 North Country Road), which became the final piece of downtown Wading River’s current food puzzle when it opened two summers ago. “The food is very specialized down here. We’re all good at what we do and we’re all a little different.”

Wendelken is complimentary when describing the roles each dining spot plays in downtown’s foodie ecosystem and she’s an excellent docent to walk you through what’s nearby.

La Plage offers a French-inspired and seafood forward menu (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

Brekky (2 Sound Road) is the small coffee shop that serves addictive acai bowls and fresh smoothies that’s like “something out of California or a funky little town in Massachusetts,” she explains. Mesquite Tex-Mex (2034 North Country Road), with specialty tacos that rival better-known places on the East End, is a “very hip spot.” La Plage (131 Creek Road), the upscale beachfront mainstay which was once described as “a sophisticated, yet relaxed oasis” by the New York Times brings to mind the word “romance” for Wendelken.

“And we’re a family restaurant serving elevated comfort food,” she said of North Tavern, which occupies a larger sit-down space that has seen a revolving roster of restaurants call it home over the past two decades.

A cynic might point to the handful of quality eateries that didn’t survive downtown in the past decade — Amarelle, North Fork Bacon & Smokehouse and My Creperie all come to mind — as an indicator that it’s still a struggle for businesses to survive downtown. But for Marty Accardi, who opened Brekky in October 2016 and moved this year to a larger space a few doors down, it was an alluring location to open up his first food business soon after moving to the area.

North Tavern is a family restaurant tucked away off the beaten path (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

“I saw this tiny little strip of stores and it really reminded me of a smaller version of the downtowns on the South Shore,” he said. “It was the kind of four-or-five-store village we wanted to be a part of.”

Wading River Beach, located on the northwest tip of Riverhead Town, is a primary driver of traffic to the downtown area. La Plage, the French word
for beach, is located just steps away and its outdoor diners are treated to the prime sunset views the beach offers.

On a nightly basis, sun watchers can be spotted crossing the street to the white tablecloth restaurant with casual touches like fish print art on the interior walls of a building you can just tell was once a clam shack. The menu is seafood forward and French-inspired, but it would be limiting to simply call it a French restaurant. The food is locally sourced.

Its more casual neighbors also benefit from people coming and going from the town beach. Brekky introduced gelato this year to help people cool down on their way home; tacos to go have been a staple since Mesquite opened in the former post office building in 2014; and North Tavern also aims to please the beach crowd in all sorts of unique ways, like handing out hula hoops to kids as families wait to be seated.

North Tavern serves elevated comfort food (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

While downtown Wading River will never be a bustling downtown like Greenport to the east or Port Jefferson to the west, that plays into its charm.

Wendelken said she enjoys being located “off the beaten path.”

“We draw a decent crowd but we don’t get overpowered,” she said. “We like being a hidden secret. That works well for us.”

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Accardi added, the downtown spots managed to all do things a little differ- ently and get by.

“Because of this community here,” he said. “Everyone is very supportive.”

Longtime Wading River resident Liala Strotman said she felt “especially blessed to have such great food options right downtown.”

“These restaurants sustained us during this time with great takeout filled with their love,” she said.