As the live open-mike music was about to begin last Thursday night, Jesse Matsuoka, the co-owner of Phao Restaurant on Main Street in Sag Harbor, remarked that his decision to bring on Alfredo Merat as manager was one of the best he’d ever made. He wanted someone with a local connection, he said, to “spice up the front of the house.”
The back of the house, otherwise known as the kitchen, with its Thai and Asian-fusion cooking, is already nicely seasoned after two years. Mr. Matsuoka, who with his partner, Jeff Resnick, also owns Sen, the Japanese restaurant next door, knew Mr. Merat as a musician before he went to work at Phao. “People have loved the changes” since then, he said. Aside from a variety of well-received new dishes, “Alfredo has edge and personality [and] positive energy, and provides a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere.”
Having been part of a group called Hamptons Singers and Songwriters that performed weekly at the Bay Street Theatre for a few years, Mr. Merat was on a mission to find a new venue where talented musicians with their own lyrics could be heard. While searching Sag Harbor he found Phao, where he manages not only the restaurant but the live entertainment.
John Monteleone, another member of the songwriters group, was enjoying dinner and sake at Phao’s open mike night two weeks ago. The group “was very successful for a long time,” he said, but “if there’s no place to do it, it won’t exist.”
Brian Downey, also a member, said that many of the 28 musicians auditioned at his Bulldog Studio. Some of them are well known, such as Nancy Atlas and Gene Casey, but the group also includes a number of teenagers on the way up. “Where else are they going to get the chance?” said Mr. Downey.
The mike is also open to outsiders. Mr. Merat makes the strong suggestion that they bring original songs, but doesn’t insist on it. “Talent is best found through original music,” he said, but audiences like to hear cover songs, and many musicians do a nice job of making them their own.
Mr. Downey brings all of the sound equipment and assists with the lineup as well, agreeing with Mr. Merat that they support the younger generation. “We like that. We want to help them showcase their talent,” he said.
Poets have been welcomed, too, to the weekly Thursday-night event, which begins with one or two featured acts before the musicians get their chance. Last Thursday, members of the Complete Unknowns — Klyph Black, Randolph Hudson, and Michael Weiskopf — were featured. Another highlight was a tribute to the great Doc Watson, who died last week, performed by Walter Us, a painter, and George Howard, who is usually behind the scenes as a sound engineer.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Merat’s own daughter, Lilly-Anne Merat, was the featured act, jumping on the microphone with a ukulele, a soothing voice, exquisite beauty, and confidence. Ms. Merat, who splits her time between her parents’ homes on North Haven and East Hampton, appeared on the television show “X Factor” last July with her acoustic group of Sonneteers, who made it all the way to the judges’ round of the singing competition. Simon Cowell told his daughter to come back as a solo artist, said her proud father, and they are awaiting the call for a date.
Ms. Merat’s uncle, Xavier Merat, a well-known Sag Harbor hairstylist and salon owner, was in attendance that night enjoying scallops and sake while he watched his niece perform. He said he was glad to see that his brother, who has “managed the best of places in Paris,” is happy, and feels the venue is a good fit. Xavier Merat is also a musician; he plays with the Escola de Samba drummers.
Alfredo Merat has also added to Phao’s entertainment agenda acoustic reggae on Sundays and a salsa industry night with Mambo Loco on Mondays. Friday brings the Voice of Phao sing-along with Monica Hughes, and on Saturdays there’s lounge house music with D.J. Matty Nice, who will “mix it up with rhythm and blues, funk and disco.”
We are “fusion” everywhere, said the musician-manager, who suggested that Phao, as it is now known (and often mispronounced Phay-o rather than Pow), be morphed into Le Petit Pao Lounge Sag Harbor, coming soon. He has been working with the chef, Michael Swan, to tweak the Asian-influenced Thai menu, which includes such entrees as pan-roasted sea bass, seared sea scallops with lobster dumplings, and a spicy hanger steak.
When not managing the music, menu, staff, and service, Mr. Merat, who’s played and sung since he was 19 in cafes in France, where he grew up, will occasionally grab the microphone himself. He will be the featured act in July, and said he also keeps an extra guitar in the back, in case Jimmy Buffett wants to stop by.