The only thing that kept the spectacle of Dîner en Blanc from looking like a scene out of HBO’s The Leftovers was the lack of cigarettes and the silent treatment. Close to 1,200 Washingtonians descended upon a secret location last night wearing white from head to toe; an additional 7,000-plus wanted to attend, but found themselves on the wait list. And for good reason—it was like a wedding you actually want to go to, complete with sparklers, bubbly, DJs, and dancing.
Dîner en Blanc is an international phenomenon, and last night D.C. joined a roster of its locales that includes Singapore; Kigali, Rwanda; Johannesburg, South Africa; Montreal, Los Angeles, and New York. It originated 25 years ago in Paris, and while the concept may be simple, it’s hard to pull off: “Thousands of people, dressed all in white, and conducting themselves with the greatest decorum, elegance, and etiquette, all meet for a mass ‘chic picnic’ in a public space.”
That public space happened to be in the Navy Yard overlooking the water in front of Osteria Morini. But participants only put two and two together when we changed from the Red Line to the Green Line towards Branch Avenue. The evening was as elegant as a ballet, but also as expensive as a dinner at Minibar by José Andrés. So, how exactly did I drop close to $300 on a Parisian flash mob picnic? Let’s break it down:
Attending Dîner en Blanc required “pedestrian transport” to the event (in other words, a host with more intel than you meets you at a Metro stop and guides you to the secret location). That alone cost $70. Then there were processing fees and membership fees. The transport was eventful—rumor has it Metro turned off the escalators at the Navy Yard stop in disdain of everyone toting carts toppling over with tables and chairs.
Participants could choose to purchase food baskets from Dîner en Blanc. But outside food was permitted, too—I went with Taylor Gourmet since their hoagies and risotto balls ($20) are worthy of a special occasion (right?). Others made frittatas, cucumber-avocado gazpacho, shrimp cocktail, and more gourmet treats. All alcohol had to be purchased through Dîner en Blanc, and the only booze allowed was wine. I picked Pinot Noir ($18 for a bottle).
Then there’s hardware. Guests were required to bring their own folding table (must be square and 24 to 32 inches); white tablecloth, white folding chairs, white table decorations, white cooler, white trash bag, white decorative items for the “tablescape,” white plates, and plain wine glasses ($132, all told). Everything had to set up within 10 minutes.
Finally, I needed a white dress, because cutting off the bottom of my wedding dress for a gimmicky French stunt didn’t feel right ($38). Though others were definitely in wedding gowns and veils.
As you can tell, this white party had more rules than the NFL. Leading up to the big night, I received five emails, each lengthy, full of instructions but also quite helpful. I also had an online portal to check for updates (on the rules), plus Pinterest-like inspiration for designing my “tablescape.” All of this information came from my “group leader,” one of many brave souls who took it upon themselves to ensure everything ran smoothly and everyone would have a smashing time.
Every table was intended for two. Upon arriving at the site of the dinner, group leaders assigned each couple a number representing your position in a line. From there, you had 10 minutes to set up and be seated. For the most part you were rubbing elbows with strangers, which actually enhanced the experience. From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., guests chowed down and sipped on wine set to live jazz, only being interrupted from time to time for a group napkin wave. Come 8, sparklers were distributed, and Ellie Goulding's "Burn" was blasted, signifying the end of the meal and time to dance to the kind of music you'd hear in clubs in Europe in the '90s. When it was truly dark, guests peeled away, some heading to an afterparty at the Marriott Marquis.
Besides the group leaders, who were also left in the dark about the destination until hours before, there were three Dîner en Blanc hosts: Linda Davis, Justin Ross, and Bryer Marcus. These three put in all of the legwork, including getting the requisite permits from the D.C. government. “The permit process was a challenge, mostly related to alcohol,” Marcus says. “The city expressed to us their support of the event from the very beginning, but there were still a ton of logistics to work through from the time we sent a letter of intent to having an event that's actually a go.”
Judging by Marcus’ passion, it was worth it. She’s been trying to bring Diner en Blanc to D.C. for more than two years, since she attended her first one in New York in 2011. Now she's hoping to make it an annual thing here. “Our nation's capital is a stylish, adventurous city," she says. “I knew D.C. would be a great venue.”
And it actually was. In a town getting more gimmicky by the minute, I had braced myself for frustration over the secrecy, schlep from the Metro, and the barrage of bossy emails (not to mention the basic pretense of it). But in the end, it turned out to be awesome.
Photos by Laura Hayes