“It’s magical.” That’s how several people describe their first experience at Dîner en Blanc, the five-year-old Philly plein air dinner for thousands that takes over public spaces, provides photo ops of the city and its landmarks, and seems to annoy as many as it inspires. But it is magical.
This year, the tables filled in, the sky darkened, and candles sparkled. An intimate atmosphere took over the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, where 5,000 people gathered to dine, dance, and enjoy themselves.
An international whiteout
Started in Paris over 27 years ago, when Francois Pasquier asked his friends to wear white for a picnic in the Bois de Boulogne, the event has grown annually, adding cities and participants, and garnering enthusiastic support and plenty of naysayers. This year, the Philly Dîner, which took place on August 18, had 5,000 participants and a waiting list of 34,000; 7,000 participated in Paris at the Place Vendome in June.
It’s part of an international movement that asks participants to enter a lottery for seats, bring their own dinner, tables, chairs, plates, and wait until the last minute to find out where they’re going. Still, the event grows year after year. In a world where we expect to show up and be entertained, where we carry a world of entertainment on our phones, perhaps the appeal is that diners are responsible for their own enjoyment.
This is the second year I attended the dinner as an observer. I find it magical to watch people arriving, wearing white, and creating a tableau in the center of a landmark. Self-expression is everywhere. Women wear white jeans, or wedding dresses with fascinators. Men sport top hats, or sombreros. Tables are decorated with ornate centerpieces.
From guests to leaders
Hostess Natanya DiBona was captivated by a picture of the event at the Louvre and worked to bring it to Philadelphia. “There was a lot of resistance at first,” she says, but a public relations company eventually signed on and they were able to piggyback on the success of the New York City event which had started the year before. DiBona, who works in private-equity real estate, sees it as an opportunity to highlight local spots and build community awareness, which is why they have chosen Logan Circle and Broad Street in the past, and the museum this year.
Casting director Katie Griffin is on the planning committee for the first time. New to Philly four years ago, she learned about the event and volunteered. “I’m just a natural born leader,” she says. She also thinks it adds to her enjoyment: “The more responsibility, the more fun.”
Frank Luzi, when he is not volunteering for the dinner — this year as a group leader — is director of communications for Opera Philadelphia. Four years ago, he and a friend promised their wives a fancy night out and took them to Dîner on Blanc as a surprise. He has volunteered every year since.
“We’re two working parents,” he says, “with a 12- and 10-year-old, and most nights we can barely pull it together to serve a mac and cheese dinner…. So, to break from routine: to dress up in fancy attire, prepare a five-course meal, and take it to some secret location, is so ridiculously outside the ordinary.”
Luzi also notes, “Our table had such a diverse group of Philadelphians: African-American, Latino, Asian-American, gay couples, straight couples. One of the guys at my table is a Homeland Security officer and another is a pediatric cardiologist. There were schoolteachers, musicians, physicians, and stay-at-home moms.”
Those critical of the event label it exclusive and expensive. The volunteers disagree. “It’s not exclusive,” says DiBona, “anyone can go.” “You don’t have to know anyone to get in, but you do have to do some work,” says Luzi, who had to leave a meeting at a new job just to register on time his first year.
The money that is collected, about $90 per couple, is used to pay for city services, rentals, entertainment, photography, and, of course, port-a-potties, with a donation to the Dîner en Blanc international organization. There are no charitable donations, because, DiBona says, it is part of an international group and it would be difficult to select a charity that everyone agreed on. This year, an evening called Beauté en Blanc, at which participants learned about local beauty services, did offer a donation to the Fairmount Park Conservancy, which oversees the maintenance of Logan Circle.
Whatever you think about it, for those who participate, it’s a fun evening of music, food, and friendship. And this year, until the rains came, it was a chance, after the heat wave, to enjoy the urban outdoors.