No More Group Dinners: 11 SF Party Ideas That Are Way Better

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Originally published on The Bold Italic. (RIP) 

So we’ve already established that group birthday dinners are the worst. The worst! Not convinced? Read this on-point manifesto. We’re here to help – not just rant – so we’ve come up with a list of alternative ways to celebrate that won’t make your guests secretly resent you. I mean, it’s your party, and you can force people to tediously split a bill if you want to. Or you could start taking advantage of the wisdom that supposedly comes with age and upgrade your party-planning abilities. Here are 11 great places to start:

Church of 8 Wheels

It’s a church that’s been converted into a roller rink, complete with a DJ spinning the best in funk and soul. Groovy, right?! Entry is $10, and skate rentals are $5, so you can even invite friends who don’t have a tech-job salary.

Photo by Texas.713.

Ampersand Flower Shop

For people who don’t have a big-enough apartment in which to host their friends but want to do something cooler than visit a bar, this place is perfect and incredibly reasonably priced compared to almost all the other space-rental options in SF. Ampersand is the straight-up cutest little flower shop (seriously, it’s such an awesome spot), conveniently located on a side street off 16th Street and Guerrero. There are sofas and chairs and perfectly-lit standing room that can accommodate 50 guests comfortably – up to 80 if you want to open up the huge teal barn doors and spill out onto the sidewalk. You bring your own booze, food, and playlist, which you can hook up to their speaker system and use the place like it’s the gorgeous, flower-filled living room you never had. Really, it’s one of the best little semi-secrets in San Francisco. Rates depend on the date and time, so email owners Benjamin and Emerson at to work out the deets.


The birthday party of your youth gets the hipster upgrade with craft cocktails and delicious bar bites at Mission Bowling Club, which gives you the combination of a casual bar setting with a fun activity. Other options include Presidio Bowling Center, which has more than 50 beers and 19 wines to choose from and plays amazing old music videos after 10 pm; Yerba Buena Bowling, which has less frills but cheaper beers and games; and Lucky Strike, which is the Vegas of bowling alleys with a huge full-service bar and restaurant.

Hotel Pool Party

For about the same price as most group dinners, take yourself and a few friends on a little staycation. It’s guaranteed to be far more memorable than the chicken on most prix fixe menus. The Phoenix Hotel, for instance, has a chic Andy Warhol–inspired outdoor pool and adjoining retro rock-and-roll themed bar. It’s a little slice of Hollywood smack dab in the Tenderloin. One of our editors had a blast with a more tourist-y combo last year. She went to the Starlight Room (weird and cheesy, but totally fun) for drinks and then splurged on a room at the W for an after-hours pool party.

Photo by DavityDave.

House of Air

We don’t care how old you are; jumping on trampolines is always fun. Especially when those trampolines cover an entire historic airplane hangar. Rent trampoline space for your group (they have over 8,000 square feet), or choose from one of the party packages on the site.

St. George Spirits Tours and Tastings

Wine tasting has become almost as ubiquitous and loathed as the birthday dinner. For a boozier twist that your guests likely haven’t done to death, head to St. George Spirits in Alameda, where your group will be guided through the seriously cool distillery and learn a bunch of interesting facts about Prohibition and absinthe. After the tour, enjoy a guided tasting that will leave you with a newfound appreciation for craft spirits (and likely pretty tipsy).

Photo by Brook Peterson.

The Mexican Bus Tours

This isn’t your average party bus or cheesy limo experience. Instead the Mexican Bus is a tricked-out, decorated vintage 1965 GMC that’ll take you and up to 44 friends (plus all the alcohol you want to bring) anywhere in the Bay Area. Charter a bus, and plan your own route or choose from the tours (like to all the best Latin dance floors in the city) they’ve already planned for you.

Photo by Todd Lappin.

Indoor Sky Diving

Adrenaline seekers needn’t get in a plane to experience the rush of free-falling. Available to host groups of 5 to 35 fliers, iFly has an on-site party coordinator to help you find the right package for your group.

Photo by Arnold de Leon.

Aunt Charlie’s Lounge Drag Show

For a seriously cheap, seriously rowdy experience, tell your friends to bring some one-dollar bills and meet you at Aunt Charlie’s. At first glance, Aunt Charlie’s Lounge is just your run-of-the-mill Tenderloin dive bar, featuring cheap, stiff drinks and a varied clientele. That is until the ridiculously fun entertainment joins the party and turns the space into an underground cabaret and one of the best drag shows in the city. While there are a few shows every week, Friday and Saturday nights are where it’s at, when the Hot Boxxx Girls perform, and cover is a mere $5. Reservations are suggested, as the space is pretty tiny.

Photo by James Hosking.

Forbes Island 

Renting out a bar? Snooze fest. Renting the world’s only floating island? Now that’s a birthday of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 proportions and the perfect way to ring in a milestone year.  Forbes Island, the wharf’s best-kept secret, is home to a ship-themed fine-dining restaurant, bar, lighthouse, and awesome dance space, all floating off Pier 39 among views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the famous seals. It’s surprisingly affordable (as far as island rentals go) too. Secure the Tahiti banquet room for a $1,000 minimum spend on food and beverages (what most non-floating bars require anyway). Getting the entire island to yourself (and up to 100 guests) will run you between $3,500 and 5,500 in food and libations.

Photo by Mel.

Private Skee-Ball Tournament

Sure, you could go to Buckshot and try to bogart the games for your group. Or you could visit the National Skee-Ball Champion Joey the Cat’s personal warehouse (at a secret location in the Mission) and have free reign of his classic arcade games. Think skee ball, basketball, and air hockey. Joey is super-friendly and accommodating and will work with you to pull off the event you envision, whether you want to pull out all the stops with full-service catering, a tournament production, a sound system, and a photo booth or take a DIY route in which you provide the food and drink. Just drop Joey the Cat ( a line to get things started.

The Nicholas Sparks Guide to Writing Romantic Blockbusters

Originally published on and syndicated on Levo League,, and others. 


Internationally best selling novelist and screenwriter Nicholas Sparks has heartstring plucking down to a science. His romantic formula has brought us Kleenex-mandatory love stories such as Message in a BottleA Walk to RememberDear John and a bunch of other movies your merely mortal boyfriend refused to see with you. Most importantly, we can thank Sparks for setting up Ryan Gosling with every woman’s imagination via The Notebook.


The relationship has been going strong since we first heard the immortal line: "If you're a bird, I'm a bird."
The relationship has been going strong since we first heard the immortal line: “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.”

The latest for the romance-writing machine is the suspenseful love story Safe Haven, starring Julianne Hough andJosh Duhamel. The movie hit theaters on Valentine’s Day, just in time to remind you that your own love life pales in comparison to a Sparks-created fantasy. Impossible expectations of romantic grandeur aside, Safe Haven will no doubt draw crowds. It’s got everything: danger, romance, cute kids, a gorgeous setting, and exceedingly attractive love interests.

I talked to Sparks in his hometown of Southport, North Carolina on the set of Safe Haven about his formula for delivering crowd-pleasing love stories, his creative process, and how his latest film will stack up with what we’ve grown to expect from the man who’s perfected on-screen boat rides and kissing in the rain. If you’ve ever dreamt of making your own heartrending blockbuster or simply wondered, while watching The Notebook for the 75th time through teary eyes, how anyone thinks of these things, here’s some insider information.

On His Golden Rule for Successful Stories: “A story needs to be three things: interesting, original, and universal. That goes to the theme of the story, the journeys of the characters, but also the specific elements in the book…It’s easy to do two of those three. Original and interesting, and you get Hannibal Lector. But he’s not universal.”

On Conceptualizing the Themes: “It’s always love and something. You can have love and mystery, love and forgiveness, love and loss…Safe Haven is love and danger because it’d been a long time since I’d done one like that.”

On How to Appeal to EVERYONE: “The age of the characters is the first thing I make a decision about in any novel. What age group are the main characters that fall in love? I try to vary it from book to book because most people like to read about people they relate to, right? I look back on my past.  I said, “Well, I had The Last Song, and that’s teenagers.  I had Dear John.  They’re in their 20s

“So I said I’ll do 20s for Safe Haven or whatever.  But, then I said, “Oh, my gosh, where’s my middle-aged people?”  So, here comes The Best of Me characters in their 40s and 50s.

“And so, then what you do is say, ‘Ah, but everyone wants to enjoy these.’  So, in my teenage story, I also make it a father-daughter story.  And in my 40- and 50-year-old story, they had a love story as teenagers.

“So, believe me, all of that is done purposefully to keep everybody happy.”

 On Developing Characters You Fall in Love With: “What you want is someone that you feel like could be your brother, your sister, your kids, your neighbor, your friend from college, your friend from high school, someone that you know and like, someone that you work with, right? Because the simple fact is that nobody walks around being perfect. And so you don’t want to create a character that’s absolutely perfect. They have to have flaws.  And yet, for the most part, most of my characters are created with my own worldview: I think that 80 percent of the people 80 percent of the time try to do the right thing… Everyone makes mistakes.  But, I tend to see the glass half-full when it comes to humanity.”

On Turning Novels into Movies: “A novel is a story told with words.  A film is a story told with pictures.

“I’ve written both screenplays and novels and it’s a different thinking. [With movies,] it’s the picture first.  And if you have a scene of introspection that you can’t capture in a quick picture, sometimes you have to invent things or put things in or take things out to make it work.  That’s just the nature of it.”

On Getting it on the Page: “When I sit down to write—and it’s not everyday—but when I actually sit down to write, it’s 2,000 words. Any more than that, I find, and the writing gets poor.  Anything less than that, and I lose the pacing of the novel. So, how many days is that?  Well, let’s say it takes me 150,000 words to get the 100,000 I’m going to keep and I’m editing as I go, take out a paragraph here and there.  So, that’s 75 days of writing.”

Final Words of Wisdom: “Make it original. Make it original. Make it original.”