Scene: You’re standing on a street corner in Center City. It’s happy hour time. Work’s over and you’re headed to the nearest watering hole before heading home. Then, as if from nowhere, a caravan of people, wearing white from head to toe, march past you. No one is empty-handed. They’re balancing elaborate candlesticks in each hand, bottles of champagne tucked under their arms, picnic baskets slug over their shoulders. Some of the women wear extravagant headpieces and some of the men have tables and chairs strapped to their backs. Despite all this, the mood is extremely chipper.
You’ve stumbled upon the route to Dîner en Blanc, the annual pop-up picnic which began as an elite, word-of-mouth event in Paris and has spread to dozens of other cities. The strict, all-white dress code is only one of the rules that make this event unique. Diners provide everything — literally everything — they need for the picnic, including seating and sometimes elaborate centerpieces.
And the kicker: The location is a secret to attendees. They congregate at a designated meeting place, but don’t learn the location of the party until a few minutes before it begins.
The event launched in 2012 in Philadelphia with 1,300 attendees taking over Logan Circle for an evening. Since then, Dîner en Blanc, which has popped up each August at notable Philly locations including Dilworth Plaza, the Art Museum, and the Navy Yard, has grown. This year, organizers will allow 6,000 people to attend, which means Philly will reclaim the title of America’s largest Dîner en Blanc. The city’s attendance of 5,300 people in 2017 set a record. The cost in 2019 was $113 for a pair of tickets.
Dîner en Blanc attendees praise the party as a festive evening in the city. Others, however, have been vocal about the event’s high cost, stringent rules. and elitist vibes. The Inquirer reached out to Philadelphians on both sides of the debate to ask: Is Dîner en Blanc a magical party that brings people together or a warning that Philly’s gritty reputation is being polished?
The problem with Dîner en Blanc, a worldwide event, isn’t so much that Dîner en Blanc exists. The problem with Dîner en Blanc is that it’s so gaudy, so contra-Philly, that it has no place in our streets. It’s fine for other cities. Cities with less pluck and more polish.
In truth, Dîner en Blanc makes me anxious that the Philly I know and love is on its way out.
I know that begrudging snobby people for their made-for-Instagram cabals is a fool’s errand. The aspiring influencers seek novelty like ticks seek blood. There’s no stopping them and their whims. Cotillions are out, Diners en Blanc are in.
Part of my issue with Dîner en Blanc is that it’s facsimile-cool. It’s trendy, but in that forced way, where you feel as though the hip have made a pact to accept something as cool. Dîner en Blanc is novel, like a pogo stick ridesharing company that presents itself with the earnestness of the Red Cross.
In truth, there is little actual harm in a person paying money to do a silly thing with their friends, even if that silly thing is so desperate as doing narco dress-up and carrying 40 pounds of picnic equipment through Philadelphia. So why does Dîner en Blanc feel so repugnant?
Because Philly is a town built on its scrappy identity. It is Big Nick Energy writ large. Philly has effortless, don’t-give-a-damn cool in a way no other city does. But I fear that as the years slip by, as more people pay for the privilege to eat dinners they provide themselves with rules about what you can wear, the thing that makes Philly “Philly” is going away too.
Dîner en Blanc foretells the possible future of Philadelphia, a place that could have its gritty, effervescent history scrubbed clean in favor of condo buildings with Targets and wine shops in them on Oregon Avenue, a place I love for its lunch pail attitude.
It’s exactly what the developers and transplants who are rebuilding this town seem to want to see: exclusiveness, experiences, entertainment, the kind of inoffensive urbanity that gobbles up heritage.
What Dîner en Blanc and similar institutions like pop-up beer gardens and axe-throwing clubs represent isn’t culture. Rather, it’s an empty cavity that rots history and replaces it with vapid, social media-friendly pop-up experiences.
Or that’s what I fear, anyway. To see the aloof and the influential gathered up on the Parkway or on Broad Street puts a knot in my stomach not because I actually care if they are the aloof and the influential, but because I know that these things only grow and grow until memories of the town I love are just pictures in an old-days theme restaurant. If Times Square can go from the literal embodiment of New York grit, to an obscene tourist trap where the only crime to speak of is a guy in a Transformers costume heckling people who refuse to pay for a photo op, then the Italian Market can become ItMa. And this is where it all starts.
Dîner en Blanc is the literal whitewashing of Philly.
And PS: The absolute height of snobbery is eating in an outfit that you cannot conceivably get ketchup on and ever wear again. That’s just rubbing the faces of real Philadelphians in it.
Quinn O’Callaghan is a freelance writer and teacher in Philadelphia.
My gig on the radio has landed me invites to some really sensational events, but Dîner en Blanc is my favorite.
I accepted the invitation to the very first Dîner en Blanc Philadelphia in 2012 very last minute. I only had a few days to find a table that fit the 32-inch requirement, plus folding chairs, dishes, a white outfit, and the hardest element: a plus one. This isn’t the most exciting pitch: Hey, do you want to go to this party on Thursday night? I don’t know where it is or what it’s like, but I’ll bring food, tables, and chairs. Will you just meet me at Broad and Oregon at 5:30 p.m.? By the way, you can only wear white.
But I did find someone to accompany me and on the day of the party, I lugged all the stuff to the meeting spot where my friend and I waited with 100 other white-dressed people. That was the moment that sealed my love for Dîner en Blanc: A bunch strangers standing on a random corner of the city smiling ear to ear, trying to figure out what was in store for the evening. The anticipation was thrilling — even if my table was too small. (No one noticed, or cared.)
We hopped on the Orange Line to City Hall, and as we marched toward the Parkway I saw hundreds of more people coming from different directions, strutting into Logan Circle. We set up around the fountain and, when every table was set, we twirled our white napkins in the air and began the most unforgettable dinner party of our lives. Excitement was in the air and after a few bottles of wine, we all ended up splashing in the iconic fountain. It was truly magical.
As the years passed, I got better at the strategic parts: For me, the best way to enjoy the party is to bring the minimum amount of table accessories and prioritize the booze. I know plenty of Dîner en Blanc regulars who stress over seating and tablescape. That’s not for me — but I will definitely snap a photo of a gorgeous centerpiece. The event usually falls right around my birthday, so I bring a cupcake and sing with my table mates, then say goodbye and wander around for the rest of the evening. For me, the most enjoyable time is spent bumping into friends, admiring everyone else’s beautiful tables and chatting with the nicest strangers I’ve ever met.
I tell everyone about how much I love the anticipation, the community and the magic of Dîner en Blanc — but it still never satisfies the haters.
“You have to bring all your own food?”
That’s a win — much cheaper than being at a bar all night.
“And set up your own stuff?”
Yup, just like you do every weekend at the beach.
“But it blocks streets and disrupts traffic.”
Have you ever sat on 76 for hours on a Saturday morning when both drives are closed and a lone roller blader sails by on an empty MLK Drive?
“Yeah, but they don’t want me, I can’t get in.”
I’ve never met anyone who has tried repeatedly and not eventually gotten in. It’s harder — and more expensive — to get Eagles season tickets than it is to attend this party.
If you already dislike Dîner en Blanc, I know there’s no changing your mind.
My question to you is: Have you ever been?
Marisa Magnatta is a producer for the Preston & Steve Morning Show on 93.3 WMMR.