Find comfort food, community, and history at Union Tavern
On any given evening you can find a real mix of clientele at the Union Tavern.There are young people who have just recently moved to the Seabreeze neighborhood, older people who have lived in the area all their lives, and—if you believe it—maybe a few spirits of the past who have never left. Owners Kelly and Don Bush reopened the former Reunion Inn after racking up plenty of years in the restaurant business. Don began bartending in 1994, and he also did stints as a coffee roaster and a baker. He loves bartending and being the chef, he says.The couple opened Marshall Street Bar and Grill in 2010. At the outset, Kelly says, “I had zero background” in the restaurant business. “But I started doing the books and office work.” Kelly learned as much as she could about the industry and became involved with the New York State Restaurant Association. She was able to use a lot of what she learned to help with the business. “He keeps people in,” Kelly says, laughing, “and I keep us out of jail.”
After the Marshall Street Bar and Grill was well established, they wanted to continue to grow and found that the former Reunion could be a perfect match for their personalities.
“We felt like we could fill a void in this area,” says Kelly. There are lots of great bars and restaurants in the Seabreeze neighborhood, but they wanted to open one that was a little bit mellower and quieter—where you could talk and make new friends. Don always wanted to run a “brass-and-fern” establishment, “the type of place where Sam Waterston would sit and have a bourbon at the end of Law and Order,” he says. There are no televisions in the bar, by design—the Bushes wanted to promote conversation and old-fashioned conviviality. Many people come to the Union Tavern alone, they say, because they know there will be someone to talk to. It’s important to them that everyone feels welcome, and they point out that they also have plenty of space for private events. “We do a lot of that,” Kelly says. At the time of the interview, they were preparing for a celebration of life for a community member who had passed away.
The negotiations to buy the place began in 2018, and they took ownership in early March of 2019, then opened in July. Everything was going “amazingly” well, they said, and then COVID hit. They were able to reopen after the first few months of the pandemic— luckily, the tavern has a lot of space, so patrons felt comfortable that they could socially distance.
The Union is a New England–style tavern featuring comfort food. The owners’ favorite dish is chicken cavvies—like chicken riggies, with but cavatappi. This dish was born when they ran out of rigatoni one day and found that they loved cavatappi more. “It’s so good,” says Kelly.Yankee pot roast and fish and chips also feature, and there are vegan and vegetarian dishes on the menu as well. The Union aims for an innovative cocktail and mocktail menu, and bartenders are encouraged to create their own specialty drinks. The building has a multilayered backstory. The tavern was originally built by the eighth town supervisor of Irondequoit in 1856. “A lot of fancy people came through these [doors],” Kelly says. It is rumored that the building was a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is also said that the tavern was later a speakeasy, but there is little documentation of these things. Kelly continues to do research on the property’s history.
Many psychic mediums come to experience the tavern, and they tend to describe the paranormal activity here as “mischief.” Kelly says there are “definitely things we can’t explain.” Footsteps regularly seem to run after Kim, a staff member. Sometimes there will be an inexplicable scent of cigarette smoke in someone’s face; staff have reported weird shadows. But there has never been anything that made them feel uncomfortable, Kelly says. “There was just so much activity here” over the years, “and energy doesn’t go away.” Paranormal enthusiasts with ghost finding devices have recorded words and sounds as well as moving lights. The tavern’s stairs seem to be a hot spot for this kind of activity.
Ghost hunts—private and public—are available at the tavern all year round. October features events every night: you’ll find horror movie trivia, tarot card readers, ghost stories with more details on the resident spirits, and more.“That’s kind of one of the things that drew us to it,” Kelly remarks. “We love Halloween, and we love scary stuff. So, knowing the history, this place was just a perfect fit for us.” You can visit the Union Tavern at 4565 Culver Road and online at uniontavernseabreeze.com.