Monte Schaller remembers poking his head into one of Morro Bay's oldest dive bars a few years ago — just to see what was going on.
"It was a madhouse in (there)," the longtime San Luis Obispo resident recalled, describing a small, dim drinking establishment with a live band crammed in one corner.
Today, the same unassuming Main Street spot that once housed old-school watering holes Happy Jacks and the Fuel Dock Saloon is the home of The Siren, San Luis Obispo County's hottest new concert venue.
A sleek, vintage-inspired space with brick walls, exposed ceiling beams and a bar top carved from a live-edged slab of Big Sur redwood, the 21-and-up nightclub boasts a state-of-the-art sound system and stage that's hosted everyone from reggae rock band The Expendables to roots rockers Dave and Phil Alvin to rapper Afroman of "Because I Got High" fame.
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Since The Siren opened its doors in January 2017, "I've been really intent on morphing it from the neighborhood bar to a bonafide music venue," explained Schaller, who came aboard as general manager that February. "It's really opened a whole entire floodgate to a new culture in this town."
The Sirens' owners, Paul and Kelly Boisclair, discovered the former Fuel Dock the old-fashioned way: They started drinking there after moving to Morro Bay from Clovis.
"We thought, 'Wouldn't this be a great location for a bar?' " recalled Paul Boisclair, a retired commodities trader. (He described his wife of 32 years as "one of the greatest homemakers you've ever met.")
The Boisclairs had long dreamed of owning a tavern like the ones they'd encountered on their travels in cities such as New Orleans; Nashville, Tennessee, and Savannah, Georgia — one with live music and "a kind, loving, 'Cheers' atmosphere," Kelly Boisclair said, referring to the popular sitcom set in a Boston bar.
So when the Fuel Dock went on the market in late 2014, they jumped at the chance to purchase the property.
So far the Boisclairs have spent about $3 million to translate the "paper-napkin plans" they made while sitting on bayou bar stools into reality — $1 million to buy the 1925-era building and $2 million to transform it from a tiny, outdated bar to a full-fledged event venue. Renovation efforts ranging from the cosmetic (chipping away plaster to reveal brick walls) to the structural (extensive earthquake retrofitting) took an entire year.
The couple wanted a venue name that reflected Morro Bay's identity as a coastal community. Their daughter came up with The Siren, "the seductress of the sea," Paul Boisclair said.
While the Fuel Dock shared the structure with other tenants, such as restaurants, The Siren's footprint encompasses the entire building, the Boisclairs said. The space now has a capacity of 375 people — or 300 during concerts, due to the L-shaped layout.
And that's not the only major change. A patio with a fire pit gives patrons a place to soak up Morro Bay sunshine, while USB ports under the bar offer them a chance to charge their iPhones.
Thanks to the addition of a kitchen most recently occupied by Shawn's on Main, which closed its doors in 2014, the venue now has the ability to serve food.
Morro Bay barbecue joint Brickhouse BBQ, located just down the block, devised a menu that features "high-end pub food" such as chicken wings, sliders and fried Brussels sprouts served with Parmesan cheese and a rosemary balsamic reduction sauce, Schaller said.
Those small bites pair well with a small wine selection, 16 rotating beer taps featuring local and California brews and a cocktail menu that includes such sinful options as The Slippery Mermaid.
But the biggest difference at this Main Street hotspot is the music selection.
Working closely with local concert promoters such as SLO Record Swap co-creator Manuel Barba and Good Medicine Presents co-founders Todd and Korie Newman, Schaller is bringing in a broad array of acts ranging from Americana to blues to hip hop.
"Culturally, we look at music trends ... and see what's hot," especially among concertgoers in their 20s and 30s, said Schaller, who spent eight years as a general manager with Good Medicine Presents.
He aims his attention at performers that are too popular to play smaller venues such as San Luis Obispo's Frog and Peach Pub, but not quite high-profile to fill the Fremont Theater in downtown San Luis Obispo.
In addition to top-tier talents such as soul revival band The James Hunter Six, playing May 15, and blues legend John Mayall, performing June 5, The Siren is hosting a slew of tribute bands in coming weeks — including Aeromyth on May 31, Journey Unauthorized on June 16 and Tom Petty tribute act Make It Last All Night on July 13.
"This place is just choking with talent looking for a place to play," Paul Boisclair said.
Todd Newman of Good Medicine Presents credited Schaller and the Boisclairs with creating "a first-class music venue with a commitment to the local community."
"The Siren is a great room from top to bottom," Newman wrote in an email. "Touring and local artists have given (it) rave reviews."
Local music fans have also taken notice.
"This is an amazing transformation of an old bar to a fantastic destination," Arroyo Grande resident Lana Cote Charles wrote on Facebook. "It's the place to see a show in SLO County. ... Don't hesitate, get yourself into The Siren."
"I've been living here for 18 years and am so excited to finally have a solid place to see phenomenal music in my home town,” wrote Cuesta College professor and Morro Bay resident Dawn Feuerberg enthused via Facebook. And Santa Maria resident Johnny Steddum simply called it the "place to be for live music lovers."
"I'm always looking at ways to tweak the room to make it more concert friendly, as opposed to bar friendly," Schaller said. "That's what I'm (working toward) now — being a music venue seven days out of the week and a bar when it's slow."
He's also experimenting with more unconventional events such as Saturday's surf-themed two-parter. During the day, community members can check out surfing-inspired art and photography while listening to music by Sovereign Vine; that free event is followed by a ticketed Surf Night concert featuring The Wheeland Brothers and the Shane Stoneman Band.
On May 20, The Siren will host its first SLO Record Swap — featuring a daytime vinyl swap and open mic jam, paired with an evening concert by soul jazz trio The White Blinds.
"The big thing that everybody is really excited about, and what we get patted on the back for, is the variety," Schaller said. "We're really mixing it up and keeping it vibrant."