Sweet Sixteen

Your daughter turns 16 once, so youd better do it up right

Nina Link, a petite Mission Viejo housewife of southern Italian ancestry and New York upbringing, confesses she's been preparing for her daughter's Sweet 16 party since she was 2—since her daughter was 2, she meant, although she's been working herself up to an unforgettable birthday event for nearly as long. "I wanted so badly to be 13 that my mother gave me a surprise birthday party," Link recalls. "Sixteen went by real fast. All of a sudden, I was 19 . . . 20." Now that her oldest daughter's 16th birthday party is only five days away, Nina sounds ecstatic, almost desperately so.

"When you're 18 and you're a girl, it's already over—you drive, you're approaching college," she declares, although in a tone that softens the harshness of those words. "This is just something that's passing so fast. It's nice to stop and appreciate it."

Abbrarose Link, Nina's daughter, will have her 16th birthday appreciated in black-tie extravagance—with an elaborate dinner, an extensive guest list, exquisite cake, expensive presents . . . It sounds, well, exhausting. But Nina seems positively energized. Big moments seem to do that to her.

Abbrarose Link, 16. Photo by Amy Theilig
Abbrarose Link, 16. Photo by Amy Theilig

For some reason, this week has her remembering the Beatles' sold-out 1965 show at Shea Stadium, how she scored 10 tickets, and then wangled her way backstage. She was 8 years old. "It was crazy!" she tells me and Collin Rand—the guy she has hired to help her plan Saturday's big party—as we snack on the Pillsbury cinnamon rolls she baked us. "You couldn't hear anything!"

Neither could the Beatles, which was partly why they stopped playing concerts. But Nina must have realized she had a certain flair for pulling things off . . . whether that meant getting a call back from Beatles manager Brian Epstein or giving Abbrarose a Sweet 16 party they'll both remember for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, she's not perfect—she never did get to meet the Beatles.

Nonetheless, Nina is determined there be no such shortcoming on Abbrarose's big night, which has already involved more planning than most weddings and invasions of Iraq. That's why, after polishing off the Pillsbury, we get back to it, at Valentina Ristorante—Nina, both her daughters, Rand and me—where Nina is emphasizing to Dominico, the owner of Valentina, that she really needs a menu . . . now . . . which happens to be 11 o'clock on Tuesday morning.

Abbrarose agrees. The young girl observes that so many other Sweet 16 parties don't amount to more than cake out by the pool. "They're really homely," she says, before charitably adding, "but still fun."

At her party, dessert will be as it should be—icing on the cake. Guests, who were mailed engraved invitations in January—will choose one of three main courses. Their cake, two sophisticated rectangles of tiramisý, will be made by It's All About the Cake, a studio of baking design in Dana Point. Flowers will arrive from Bloomers Flowers in Laguna Niguel. And after an updated version of the Hot Potato game, someone will win the centerpiece!

According to Rand's calculations, the five-hour event—the first black-tie, sit-down-dinner, Venetian-gala-themed Sweet 16 he's overseen—will cost more than $10,000. It will, he says, be very similar to how the custom is practiced back East.

"I've done Sweet 16s," he says reassuringly (although perhaps Rand's hottest credit is the low-profile wedding he planned for fashion designer Paul Frank last year). "Out here, [they're] just more informal. It's a more relaxed affair. But the East Coast [influence] is becoming a much bigger thing on the West Coast. I wouldn't be surprised if this sort of thing caught on out here."

Rand says Southern Californians now seem to realize that a real party costs money, no matter what the occasion, and they are prepared to spend whatever is necessary. He predicts future examples of the Sweet 16 may one day stand alongside its predecessor—the elegant, extravagant bar and bat mitzvah. That's hallowed ground.

"I'm getting butterflies already," Nina says as we check the place out.

But she looks cool and composed in a sheer black mohair sweater, tight black slacks and pointy flats. A silvery, jangly belt punctuates the ensemble.

"I'm excited," says Abbrarose.

But she and her 10-year-old sister, Karamia, seem just as calm as their mother. And just as well put together in nice jeans, pink jackets (leather double-breasted for Abbrarose, a sophomore at Capistrano Valley High; faux-fur-collared tweed for Karamia) and dressy shoes (pointy leopardy flats for Abbrarose, black brogans for Karamia). They'd blend right in at Sutra.

Abbrarose is up to speed on every detail of the preparations—her sugar-cube corsage (a Sweet 16 standard), the individual imported party masks that will be given (as attire as well as gifts) to each of the 50 guests, how the evening will begin with the requisite father-daughter dance (to Neil Sedaka's "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen") and end with a ballad (Billy Joel's "When You Wish Upon a Star"). "This is a real New York thing," says Abbrarose, "and I've always prided myself on being raised by two New Yorkers."

Her father, Wayne, is a corporate headhunter who helped bring the Circuit City chain out west in the '80s. Her mother, Nina, is a homemaker, who tells me later, "I'd like to do something with my life. I know I have something inside me that most people don't have"—although what she would like most at this moment of her life is a menu, which she is again demanding from Dominico.

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