It is very, very easy to hate Diner en Blanc. The annual event, which returns to Washington on Saturday night, brings thousands of people to a surprise location, where they arrive dressed in head-to-toe white, eat gourmet picnics and drink champagne in full view of the uninvited masses. Those who are out and about this weekend may see a parade of them on the Metro, toting tables and chairs and china. And depending on your outlook, you’ll either wish you were one of those lucky 3,500 or loathe them with every fiber of your being.
“No event has ever made me want to plan a paintball rampage like this one,” said Tom Bridge, editor emeritus of We Love DC. He’s kidding, kidding, he promises! But he is not alone.
People have scoffed at cronuts and rolled their eyes at the long lines at Rose’s Luxury. But no foodie trend seems to raise hackles quite like a very public, invitation-only party with a dress code and a $45 admission fee.
“The whole process is so unbelievably pretentious it seems to me to be a complete waste of effort,” Bridge said. “Pretentious” is a word that comes up a lot around Diner en Blanc. Is it the French name? Peut-être! (It’s pronounced dee-nay on blon). Or is it all the hoops the event makes guests jump through?
To attend, you must:
1. Receive an invitation from someone who has been to a previous dinner, or sweat it out on a waiting list of thousands until a spot opens up.
2. Register and pay for a $37 ticket and an $8 membership fee.
3. Buy or borrow a white square folding table (between 28 and 32 inches!) and white chairs, white plates and a white tablecloth.
4. . . . and an all-white outfit, if you don’t already own one. “No ivory, no off-white, and no beige,” the website instructs. And please, dress “elegantly.”
5. . . . and a “gourmet meal for two” — no Chipotle! — which you can order from Diner en Blanc for $65 to $95, or prepare for yourself (it does not need to be white, but the bag you use to carry it does). Any wine must be purchased from Diner en Blanc for $16 to $50 a bottle. Beer and hard alcohol are prohibited.
6. Haul all this stuff to the secret dinner location.
7. Did we mention it’s rain or shine, and attendance is “mandatory”? “In case of rain, guests must remember to bring a white or transparent raincoat, poncho and/or umbrella,” the website notes.
It didn’t start out like this. As the origin story goes, François Pasquier wanted to gather a group of friends for a party, but he didn’t have enough space in his Paris apartment. He asked his friends to bring a friend and a meal and meet at Bois de Boulogne dressed in white so those who weren’t already acquainted could identify the group.
That was in 1988. These days, Diner en Blanc International manages the event on a global scale, licensing it in more than 70 cities. Volunteers organize the event, but it also has corporate sponsorship: Previous affiliated brands have included Moët & Chandon and Celebrity Cruises. In Washington, where the event has been held since 2014, the organizers partner with florists, wine companies, boutiques and specialty grocers. It might have started as a simple dinner party, but Diner en Blanc has followed the trajectory of Burning Man: a see-and-be-seen prestige event with an arms race in escalating costs from participants trying to outdo one another.
“For all the effort, for that much money, you might as well go out on 14th Street,” said Cedric Craig, a communication specialist at a tech company who has tried, and failed, to reserve a spot two years in a row — a process that has left him disenchanted with the brand and unsure if he’ll try again next year. “Maybe I’m just bitter.”
Who else is bitter? Maybe the folks in Vancouver, B.C., who decided to start Ce Soir Noir , all-black, all-free counterprogramming to Diner en Blanc.
And then there are Philadelphians. Witness the angsty back-and-forth that took place in the City of Brotherly Love, which had its dinner on the “Rocky” steps on Aug. 18: One PhillyVoice column from two-time attendee Bernie Carlin scolded the event for not supporting a charity. Another column on the same website chimed in to note the trash that participants left behind and their “usurping a public space in the name of pretentious exclusivity.” A third column defended the event, noting that “there are worse things out there than a group of happy people wearing white to a picnic.” The Philadelphia Metro, not to be outdone, called the naysayers “party poopers” and provided the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of snobbery — directing it not toward the people who were eating prosciutto-wrapped melon in fancy white clothes, but at those questioning them.
“It’s indulgent for indulgence’s sake,” Carlin said. He and his girlfriend spent nearly $450 on the dinner before he had his come-to-Jesus moment. “It’s one thing to get together with your friends and celebrate and have fun, but when 5,000 people celebrate and have fun, you think there would be some desire to do something better for people.” But he had a good time, he admits.
Participants and nonparticipants across the country have voiced similar concerns.
“Basically you’re taking a collectively owned or publicly owned space and walling it off,” said David Bernabo, a documentarian who makes films about food in Pittsburgh, which will also have its dinner on Saturday. Even if you think of Diner en Blanc as a piece of performance art, it fails: “I think art that is purely spectacle is not lasting art,” Bernabo said.
Also: “I don’t know,” he said. “You just look at this and you’re kind of annoyed.”
Yes, some of the naysayers have never attended. But the fact that Diner en Blanc is so public — and is, in a sense, a performance for social media — means that those who don’t attend are qualified to comment on it.
Diner en Blanc bills itself as an “inclusive” event while maintaining a waiting list that has 20,000 names on it in Washington alone. But that’s merely an issue of capacity, says Sandy Safi, director of development for Diner en Blanc International.
“I would love to accommodate 10,000,” Safi said. “People interpret us not having any more availability as exclusivity, but we’re bound to geographical limitations.”
Besides, the event does seem to draw a racially diverse crowd. “I have people saying, ‘Thank you for bringing all of these communities together,’ ” Safi said.
Safi says all income from tickets and food goes toward the costs of hosting the event, including permits, security and DJs. And Diner en Blanc may incorporate a charitable cause in coming years, once her small team has the capability to vet charities in different cities.
Maybe it all just comes down to the eternal words of our poet laureate, Taylor Swift: Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.
“We’re not making anyone go,” said Bryer Davis, host of the D.C. dinner. People “want to go because they want to experience that community feel . . . in the most unique, off-the-charts unfathomable way.”
It is easy to hate Diner en Blanc. But it’s easy to love it, too.
“I spend a lot of time crafting my menu,” said Laetitia-Laure Brock, a Parisian expat who has volunteered as a Diner en Blanc group leader every year in the District. Everyone “has a different way of expressing themselves at the event, even though everyone has the same instructions. You’re given a white canvas.”
That is precisely what irritates Pat Walsh, a man who was once deemed D.C.’s “General Enthusiast” but who can muster no enthusiasm for Diner en Blanc. “It’s dorky to pay so much and try so hard to be spontaneous and cool,” he said.