NEWARK -- I know exactly the moment when I fell for Love at First Slice.
It was getting late there one recent night as Tablues, a band of blues musicians, entered its third hour of jamming with any vocalist who wanted to join in.
The session seemed to be winding down when a 73-year-old nonprofessional vocalist the band had never met hopped onstage.
What could have been a musical disaster turned magical, as Wilbert McAlister -- dressed in a cowboy hat, boots, a shirt with a Texas state flag design, and a Dallas-size belt buckle -- energized the sparse audience, strutting and preening and growling the lyrics to the R&B classic "Kansas City."
McAlister improvised, singing, "We don't have to go to Kansas City/ Let's stay here in Newark, Calif., baby, and rock and roll!"
The smoldering, foot-stomping, soul-feeding set transformed the pizzeria into an intimate club, generating the kind of serendipitous show that its open format invites.
"It's always neat when you can bring people together who've never met before," said John Vargas, a Fremont songwriter who organizes the jazz-blues performances. "Mistakes get made, sure, but when it works well, it's really a delightful accident."
The two-room Newark restaurant, tucked in the back of a modest strip mall on suburban Mayhews Landing Road, is an unlikely spot for a thriving performance space. But genuine soul and generosity are scarce commodities, and Love at First Slice practically serves those qualities on a plate.
The area's artists have taken note and are making it one of their regular haunts.
Vargas, whose 510 Jazz band has begun recording an album, said he started the weekly performances to give the Tri-City area a larger, more cohesive music community. He struggled to find a suitable place to jam until his son suggested Love at First Slice.
From their opening day in 2010, owners Tom and Kelly Thomas have hosted a growing range of genres, presenting regular nights of music, comedy, spoken word and karaoke.
Their daughter, Jenna, runs the restaurant and also likes taking the stage on open mic nights to sing "Me and Bobby McGee" and R&B tunes.
"We're all about the live local artists," she said. "A lot of our employees play in bands, and we decided we wanted this to be a cool spot for musicians."
The Thomases' satisfying food further reflects the heart they put into their business. What's more heart than serving heart-shaped pizzas, a frequent request on Valentine's Day?
Also, they aren't afraid to embrace the weirdly inspired, a Bay Area tradition if there ever was one. Leading the monthly comedy nights: "Mean Dave," a comedian whose flier promises he'll tackle "hard-hitting subjects like public restrooms, hot chocolate and cannibalism."
The performance nights draw regular customers like Tim Chan, a Newark software engineer and music fan who played bass in his younger days. He said he rarely misses the jazz-blues nights and often brings his four young children. "I always want to bring my kids to jazz stuff," he said. "This is the only family-friendly place I know of."
Performers anywhere need a space where they can take risks and hone their talent, in front of small audiences in out-of-the-way places with odd names. I'm talking about spots like Cafe Wha? -- the Greenwich Village club where young Bob Dylan cut his teeth -- or The Purple Onion in North Beach, where Lenny Bruce and The Kingston Trio played in the early '60s.
Even in its out-of-the-way setting, Love at First Slice shares their spirit. Stardom may elude its talented performers, but their random, entertaining moments can put you over the moon.
"I've seen sessions where two or three songs are magic, and people around the room get goose bumps when it happens," Vargas said. "Sometimes it's like a perfect storm."
Out & About is a monthly column that highlights the wildly underrated entertainment scene in the Tri-City and greater Hayward areas.