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Hidden Gems in Sleepy Towns

McLean and Great Falls offer alternatives to Washington for fun.

Ask around Great Falls and McLean, and most people will say they venture into nearby Washington, D.C., for some afternoon or evening fun.

Those residents are the ones who don't know where the secrets lie, from ice cream to Italian cuisine and everything in between. Every community has a little something different, a little sweet spot that only the locals know about. Great Falls and McLean are no different.

First, there's Thelma's Ice Cream in Great Falls. Technically, the official name is Thelma's Country Store, at 10200 Colvin Run Road, but for those who know, the name Thelma's is synonymous with a cool treat on a hot day.

A long-time resident of Great Falls, Christine Dziak said, "My family and I enjoy going to Thelma's on a hot summer day or after a T-ball game ... my kids like to play on the tree swing in the back of the store."

Kelly Rafko, manager of the Village Center, agrees. "People in the community refer to Thelma's as one of Great Fall's treasures," she said.

NEXT ON THE list is the Old Brogue, an Irish pub known for its St. Patrick's Day festivities, good food and lively atmosphere.

One of the first pubs of its kind in Northern Virginia, The Brogue, as it's known to those who know, is one of the central meeting places in Great Falls. Word on the street is that if you want to know what's going on in Great Falls, go to The Brogue, or its morning counterpart, Gillette's Coffee.

Debbie L. Green said simply, "It's the best place around." In addition to being a great place for some Fish and Chips and a Guinness to wash it down, the Old Brogue is home to the Great Falls charitable organization.

"Perhaps a not-so-secret secret is how great the Old Brogue is, from the food to the atmosphere to the community charitable giving," she said.

Mike Kearney, owner of The Brogue, has been called the "unofficial mayor of Great Falls" for his involvement in the community. Most recently, his Great Falls Charitable Organization helped with the construction of the Great Falls Freedom Memorial, located behind the library on Walker Road, to honor those residents who gave their lives in military service.

MANY OTHER RESTAURANTS, such as The Kabob, Romantica, Deli Italiano, L'Auberge Chez Francios, Dante's, Serbian Crown and The Tavern are among the favorite local eateries in a place that prides itself on not allowing retail chains inside its town center.

"Ask for the pizza well-done, light on the cheese, and it's perfect," Jean Sammarco suggests when visiting Romantica or Deli Italiano. "The Kabob has the best chicken and rice around," she said.

For morning fare, Gillette's Coffee, located in the Safeway shopping center, is where "delicious bagels and pastries" can be found, but it is also a place "to meet up with nearly everyone in Great Falls," said a resident named Justin.

To relax and spend time with some four-legged friends, Riverbend and Great Falls Parks may not be hidden treasures, but they are beloved destinations for people to hike, picnic, walk dogs, kayak and spend a quiet afternoon.

"Buy a season pass and take the dog, the kids [and] go bird watching, bike or picnic, or walk to Riverbend park, about two miles, and rent a canoe," said resident Martha Thomas. Raft recommended Difficult Run Park for a run, and Susan Sloan said to try "nature walks, classes, artistic venues, cross-country skiing" and other outdoor recreation at the parks as well.

But perhaps the worst-kept secret in Great Falls is the feeling of community that unites its residents.

"We wanted to raise our children in a family-oriented community ... I still bring homemade chocolate chip cookies to my new neighbor ... my son has the same nucleus of friends from elementary school through high school," said resident Sharon Rainey, whose Neighbors International is an information network for Great Falls.

"I think one of the reasons is because we have so many folks out here who are so community-oriented and frequently place the community's welfare before their own," said John Monsul, who regards himself as a "Happy Great Falls Neighbor."

"The heart and soul of this community are the people," said 32-year resident Kari. "I've raised kids here and continue to be impressed [that] when someone voices a need, it is usually heard."

"There are so many family-oriented functions year-round ... that make Great Falls like a Norman Rockwell dream," said Raft, who names some of the area's community gatherings, like the Children's Spring Festival, Summer Concerts on the Village Green, Fourth of July celebration, Halloween Spooktacular and holiday Tree Lighting ceremony among the highlights of life in the community.

A SHORT DRIVE down Georgetown Pike, past Difficult Run Stream Valley Trail park and Scotts Run Nature Preserve leads to McLean, a community that is holding on to parts of its rural character while opening its doors to the development of Tysons Corner.

On Westmoreland Drive, the McLean Little League complex is the center of the universe for baseball and softball playing boys and girls once the school days are over.

"The park is really nice. They keep the fields really good for us to use," said Hardi Cox, 11, of Lansing Court. "Every Saturday, there's games going on all day."

With four games played on average each game day, upwards of 32 teams meet to face each other on the baseball diamonds every week. Every year, a bat-a-thon is held to raise money to pay for maintenance on the fields, he said.

Another good place for older children to go after school, to hang out or get homework done, is the Old Firehouse Teen Center, located, as the name suggests, in the former McLean Fire department on Chain Bridge Road.

"They have a lot of good programs there for kids in high school," said Patrick Morris, 11, of Chesterbrook Woods. "They have dances on Friday nights and everyone goes."

The boys agreed that the plethora of community pools in McLean are a must-visit during the hot summer days, and there are several to choose from: Chesterbrook, Tuckahoe, Kent Gardens and Highlands, to name a few. Linway Park not only has a pool, but six tennis courts.

The McLean Community Center offers activities, classes, arts performances and events throughout the year, said Patrick Morris Sr.

"There's a lot of kids' programs there, lots of dances and theater performances," he said.

The Community Center also sponsors McLean Day, a one-day party every May for the whole community, featuring rides, games, food from local vendors and prizes that residents plan ahead and look forward to every year.

"This is a nice, old-fashioned community event," said Sam Roberts, director of events at the Community Center. "People know if you want to be seen in our community, you come out to Lewinsville Park and participate in some way. Even though there's 8,500 people, it's a nice, relaxing day."

THERE ARE SOME good eats to be found around McLean, ranging from the exotic TakiBana Japanese restaurant to the home-style lure of the McLean Family Restaurant and Corkie's.

"The McLean Family Restaurant gets really crowded on Sunday mornings after churches let out," Morris said. "The lines are usually out the door and they have everything from gyros to you-name-it."

For pizza, the place to go is a toss-up between Rocco's and Pulcinella's, Cox said. "They have just about every kind of pizza, and it's really good. They make special ingredients and everything is made fresh" at Rocco's.

At Pulcinella's, "it's the best Italian pizza I know," he said. "It's homemade. It just tastes better."

Those looking for a little history may want to drive down Buchanan Drive to see Salona, the house where James and Dolley Madison fled with the Constitution while Washington burned in the War of 1812.

Claude Moore Colonial Farm offers visitors a step back in time, with four Market Days each year, recreating 18th century life in Colonial Virginia.

Every Friday from 8 a.m. until noon, a county-sponsored Farmer's Market is held on the basketball courts at Lewinsville Park, with vendors from around Northern Virginia, West Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania. Fresh produce, baked goods, arts, crafts and flowers abound every week from May through November.