A weekend-level crowd streamed through the Di Bruno Bros. store near Rittenhouse Square on Thursday afternoon, as had been the case all day. Cheese manager Julia Birnbaum reported having had a handful of customers shortly after the store opened at 8 a.m. Normally, no one’s buying cheese till 10 at least.
“They’re trying to get their picnic shopping in before work,” she said. “It’s crazy.”
And so built the anticipation for Dîner en Blanc, the massive surprise picnic that held its eighth Philadelphia gathering on Thursday night. Besides bringing their own dinner, guests are on the hook for tables, chairs, tablecloths, plates, glasses, and flatware (no plastic). There’s also a strict dress code.
“I’ve already helped a couple of people dressed in all white,” Birnbaum said.
A few hours later, hundreds of people milled around the base of the Art Museum steps — a former Diner site — hungrily anticipating the announcement of this year’s location. Some licked Mister Softee cones to endure the hot wait, the vanilla ice cream accenting their pristine jumpsuits, airy dresses, tulle skirts, and bow tie/fedora combos.
“What’s going on?” an onlooker asked. “Is this a wedding?”
Around 7:15, organizers wordlessly led the crowd down to the Schuylkill River Trail. They proceeded north, joggers and cyclists zigzagging in and out. Music drifted from a trolley car stationed on a closed Kelly Drive.
The leaders brought them to a halt. They had arrived: Boathouse Row.
“I actually wished for this location,” said fourth-time guest Pat Nogar, a violinist serenading the table next to hers. “When you go away, then drive back into Philly and you see those lights along the river, it tells you you’re home.”
Hundreds of other guests were already seated, waving white napkins in the air, signaling it was time to eat. A different feast emerged at every table: cheese and charcuterie spreads, pizza, rotisserie chicken, mac and cheese, Chick-fil-A. One man ate lo mein with chopsticks.
As darkness fell, bubble lanterns illuminated the scene: snow-white outfits set in sharp contrast against the black asphalt. A jazz band played as women in summer shifts danced by the stage, flower crowns in their hair. Laughter echoed over the drone of 6,000 people talking. Every hand, it seemed, clutched a wine glass (no beer allowed).
“Guests don’t realize how much goes into planning this, and that’s intentional,” said Fernando Valle, a six-year Dîner volunteer. “It’s designed to be an experience, where all they have to worry about is registering, looking good, and bringing the right materials.”
What began in 1988 as a meetup of mutual friends in a park in Paris — the guests wore white so they could spot each other — has ballooned into a global affair. From Trinidad to Tokyo, diners are buying impractical white shoes and folding tables in the permissible size.
The Boathouse Row event was up 500 people from last year’s dinner at City Hall, Dilworth Park, and Thomas Paine Plaza. And it’s a long way from the city’s first Dîner in 2012, which had 1,300 people splashing champagne around Logan Square. As they have every year, tickets sold out in 2019, this time at their highest rate yet — $113 for a two-person spot. (There was also a $600 VIP option to cut the line.)
Though demand is seemingly endless, Dîner has plenty of detractors, who question, among other things, its use of public resources, cost to attendees, and overall mission.
One thing can’t be argued, though: A lot of work goes into pulling off this picnic.
The groundwork is laid in February, when Philly’s resident hosts, Natanya DiBona and Kayli Moran, meet to brainstorm about locations.
“The location needs to be outdoors, visible, accessible to subway stations, and able to create this feeling like the city is still going on around you,” DiBona said.
By March, they present two to three contenders to Philadelphia’s Office of Special Events. They loop in outside organizations as needed, as with the Art Museum in 2016, Historic Philadelphia for Franklin Square in 2017, and the Center City District for last year’s takeover of Dilworth Park. (Other sites have included South Broad Street, the Navy Yard, and the John F. Kennedy Boulevard Bridge between 30th Street Station and Center City.)
According to Bob Allen, assistant managing director of the Office of Special Events, the city has yet to deny a location request but will often push for a certain one. If another large event is scheduled nearby, alternatives rise to the top. And since the city goes along with the secrecy — it doesn’t typically give advance notice of road closures, parking restrictions, or bus detours — it tries to minimize disruptions.
In return, Dîner en Blanc pays site fees. For the use of City Hall and Thomas Paine Plaza, the city collected $3,000; the rental fee for Dilworth, which went to the Center City District, was $20,500. Closing city streets costs $50 per block.
Dîner en Blanc Philadelphia declined to share information about this year’s or previous years’ budgets. Dîner en Blanc International claims all $10 membership dues, and resident hosts keep any revenue that remains after settling expenses, according to Dîner en Blanc International.
In May, after the location is settled and dues are paid, volunteers come into play. A team of 200 or so handles everything from marketing to ordering porta-potties, communicating advance details to guests, and fielding day-of questions. There’s a scramble to coordinate security and emergency services, volunteer training, marketing, event insurance, entertainment, staging, trash pickup, and transportation.
In July, the ticketing frenzy begins, a three-phase process that cycles first through former guests, then sponsored applicants, and finally nonsponsored applicants who join a wait list.
Though it’s all done online, the process is not without angst. Volunteers spend hours attempting to quell the anxiety and sometimes anger. This year, the ticketing site crashed, causing extensive wait times.
“I will NEVER again put myself through this experience. Dîner en Blanc-Philadelphia, you are DEAD to me,” Edelina Schuman posted on Facebook after waiting for two hours in the virtual queue without scoring a ticket. “My eyes never left the screen.”
After six months of planning, effort converges with anticipation.
As the hour neared 9 p.m. on Thursday, organizers began handing out sparklers, to be lit en masse. A light rain began to fall, but no one seemed to notice. Guests mingled and smiled, complimenting each other on their outfits. Champagne flowed freely, shared among strangers. It felt like a wedding.
Nicole Mazure had driven from Voorhees around rush hour to get to the city in time for the reveal.
“The traffic is a real pain, but all of the drama settles down once you arrive,” she said. She has attended Dîner en Blanc Philadelphia since the start.