Crossing the Bridge for East Providence Restaurants

The owners of Borealis and Myrtle weigh in on keeping EP moving during traffic


When the westbound lanes of the Washington Bridge were abruptly closed last December for repair, social media feeds were flooded with tongue-in-cheek goodbye messages from East Providence residents to their friends and family across the bridge, while the rest of the state responded with promises to still visit. But those messages were short-sighted – East Providence is alive and well, and woe to those who would let traffic stand between them and their next favorite spot.

Brian Dwiggins, owner and roaster at Borealis Coffee Company, says that the bridge closure has caused some internal headaches, but business remains strong. “We’re a community-driven shop, and local commuters still stop by on their way to work,” he says, noting that the bridge construction has created a slight decrease in the shop’s after-work and weekend traffic. Luckily, Borealis’ Riverside Square location is right on the East Bay Bike Path, so those who want to skip car traffic altogether can still get their caffeine fix.

In addition to small-batch roasted coffee – sourced Fair Trade through partnerships in Colombia and Guatemala – Borealis serves a limited menu of baked goods that are produced in the kitchen of Borealis’ more recently opened Bristol location, which Dwiggins points out is just a quick seven additional miles down the bike path. The Riverside location opened in 2016, so this isn’t the first storm the coffee shop has weathered. Restaurant closures due to the pandemic certainly made an impact on the coffee shop, but it survived the pandemic because of its Pawtucket roastery, which churns out freshly roasted beans four days a week. “We opened the roastery just before COVID hit,” says Dwiggins, “but it worked out well because when the cafe closed, we kept roasting and sold our coffee wholesale.”

The roastery continues to serve its wholesale customers, which include PVDonuts, Oak Bakeshop, and Plant City. “We used to deliver our coffee beans to cafes and stores twice a week, but since the bridge closure, we only go out once a week,” Dwiggins says. He’s also adjusted the work schedules for his employees, many of whom live in Providence. “We either give our employees longer shifts so that dealing with the traffic is worth their while, or we adjust their shift start and end times to help them avoid heavy traffic.”   

Natalie VanLandingham, who owns the East Providence retro bar Myrtle with her husband, Tommy Allen, has also weathered the storm by forging relationships in the neighborhood. In fact, although she isn’t a Rhode Island native, community is one of the things that drew her to the state. “You feel responsible for each other in a way that I didn’t get in the big cities I’ve lived in before,” she says.

She and her husband, both musicians and artists, opened their spot on Waterman Avenue just six months ago in a building that was a shoe store 100 years ago. Theirs is an eclectic cocktail bar that hosts a variety of free events, from burlesque brunches to touring bands to talent shows, and they even have a small vintage shop tucked inside. “We’ve had a very warm reception,” says VanLandingham, who also says that the neighborhood bar draws people from New York, Boston, Connecticut – and, of course, Rhode Islanders from across the Washington Bridge. 

But despite drawing people from miles around, the community where Myrtle exists is a tight-knit and supportive one. “We all know that the area was abandoned for a long time, so we stick together and support each other,” she says, name dropping Jeff’s Pizza, Rosa’s Tavern, and Red Bridge Tavern. “The city has spent a lot of time and resources building the street up, so we’re excited to see what happens.”

Dwiggins says the same of Riverside Square. “There are a couple of institutions that have been around forever,” he says. “But there are also a couple of new restaurants that are going to bring new life into the square. It’ll be cool to have new little places to check out.” 

As for the Washington Bridge construction and its impact on the business community, VanLandingham is philosophical. “As a small business owner, you know that there are always going to be things coming your way that you have no control over,” she says. “But the best thing you can do when that happens is create something that you’re proud of and hope the things you can’t control don’t deter you from your mission of making good food, good drinks, good art, and doing interesting things for the people in and around your community.” 



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