Union Bar and Burrito Diversifies the Riverside Restaurant Scene

Aliya Johnson is developing a series of inclusive events including live music, drag trivia and paint nights to bring the community together.
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The interior at Union Bar and Burrito. Interior photos by William Mendez.

Union Bar and Burrito is all about building unity and honoring inclusivity and diversity. The Mexican-inspired restaurant focuses on fostering community through its events and live music nights, while also encouraging guests to hang out and enjoy food and drink in person with specials like three tacos for $6 or six tacos and a pitcher of margaritas for $49 on Taco Tuesday (dine-in only).

Run by local hospitality leader, and wellness and design expert Aliya Johnson, along with East Providence business owner Ruarri Miller (former candidate for mayor of East Providence), the restaurant has led the charge in bringing the Riverside community together, alongside Amelia Olson, owner of Tall Tumbleweed boutique, located across the street.

Aliya Johnson

Aliya Johnson. Photo by Brittanny Taylor Photography.

Upcoming events include drag trivia (Jan. 11),  paint nights with J. Barna Studio (Jan. 16), Soulful Sunday with Avi Jacob (Jan. 22), a live music jam with Tyler-James Kelly of the Silks (Jan. 24) and more. On January 31, there will also be a Tiki Takeover with Bully Boy Distillers.

Ironically, Johnson was about to get out of the hospitality industry and focus on her wellness and design business when her friend Amelia Olson, owner of the boutique Tall Tumbleweed, set her up with good intentions. She gauged Johnson’s interest in starting up a new bar and restaurant across the street from her shop, and surreptitiously had the landlord of the building, Ruarri Miller, come in the shop to meet her. Johnson couldn’t resist an opportunity.

My Project

Ruarri Miller.

“His vision aligned with mine of a gathering space. We hit it off right away with our interests and ideas for creativity,” Johnson says. “It’s a very social community. A lot of people have been here a long time and it’s hard, as an outsider, to penetrate that. But Ruarri is an outsider. He’s from Philadelphia and he started off renovating around here and people thought it was really cool that he is taking pride in the city.”

Miller encouraged Johnson to lead the design of the newly expanded dining room and bar. They updated the taco takeout counter to the right of the restaurant and expanded next door to create a fresh new look with space for socializing. Johnson has a hospitality background, having studied restaurant management at Johnson and Wales University. She started out working both front- and back-of-house in some fine dining establishments in her home state of New Jersey, including the Frog and the Peach. A former professional chef, she realized restaurant cooking was not for her and began to focus on management.

Johnson returned to Rhode Island ten years after attending JWU, transferring to a management position working for Panera Bread in Rhode Island, and then left that job to bartend at Mare Rooftop, Troop and Nicks on Westminster, before it closed. She also spent time working at Massage Envy and more recently developed her own design and wellness business.

“I was considering completely leaving the restaurant industry, but as everyone knows, it reels you back in,” Johnson says.

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Fortunately, with Union Bar and Burrito, she can combine all of her skills in one all-encompassing role, leading an events program that focuses on some aspects of wellness, including the Dear Sister series she started with Olson that leans into networking, goal-setting and setting intentions for the year. She helped redesign the restaurant by planning a new footprint that gutted the space, added a back wall of windows that overlooks the bike path and installed stylish Art Deco-style wooden sound panels as well as a tree of life accent on the wall.

There is also an outdoor seating area that seats thirty-five to forty people and sits right beside the bike path. “We are really stoked about making that more of a focus this spring and summer,” she says. “Come in and get warm and cozy, have a margarita or whatever you want on the menu.”

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Fish tacos at Union Bar and Burrito.

What’s most important to Johnson is celebrating inclusivity in the new space. While the food and drink is terrific (get the fish tacos with cabbage slaw and a cocktail made with RI Spirits’ Rhodium vodka), all people should know that they are welcome here. Across the street at Tall Tumbleweed flies a rainbow flag, and Johnson continues the neighborhood effort by planning events that appeal to guests from all backgrounds. She’s also hired black women musicians to perform in the space, including Alexus Lee and Indira.

“Inclusivity is really huge for Raurri and I,” Johnson says. “As a black woman and business owner, and finding my niche not only in the restaurant industry but also in design and wellness, we are very few and far between and we don’t always get the recognition.”

Open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Union Bar and Burrito is already advancing the neighborhood and the community is here for it.

326 Bullocks Point Ave., Riverside, 808-6940, unionburrito.com

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