White people are crazy.
Let me rephrase: People who dress entirely in white—from head to toe—and schlep white tablecloths, white chairs, and white plates and napkins to the middle of a city to eat cold food with thousands of strangers, also dressed entirely in white, and who pay for this form of social masochism, are crazy.
I reached this conclusion weeks before I donned a pair of white linen drawstring pants, a white Guayabera shirt, and a pair of white espadrilles (which look good on no man) to join 2,000 strangers for Diner en Blanc, the foodie flash-mob franchise that rolled into Washington on Saturday night.
I was a guest, but my fellow diners (“dinerers”?) had paid upwards of $100 per couple to join this culinary club.
The Washington event sold out weeks earlier. Weeks!
The attendees were told to meet in groups at pre-assigned locations around the city.
Many of them had taken the Metro from the hinterlands of the D.C. suburbs. They flocked like little white lemmings, hiking their hemlines up from the dirty street corners, and waited patiently until 6 p.m.
Only then were they informed of the soirée’s secret locale, and they set out en masse.
I’d been tipped off to the venue early.
I stood outside the Carnegie Library in downtown Washington, just across from the city’s convention center, and watched streams of crisply dressed revelers, looking very hungry, hauling folded tables and chairs, linens, and baskets towards the library’s handsome lawn.
Some carried their gear in Rubbermaid bins strapped to luggage carts. Plenty towed roll-aboard suitcases filled with cutlery and cold salads. One woman pushed her supplies in a wheelchair.
Again, I reminded myself, people had paid for this privilege. Why? Washington is lousy with public parks and open green spaces. Did these revelers require instruction to enjoy themselves? When did they become allergic to spontaneity?
The city has been transformed over the past two decades into an urban consumer playground that can accommodate both the very wealthy who can afford to live there and the multitudes that come to shop, to eat, and—apparently, as “Diner” proved—to commune with total strangers.
The evening’s attendees had religiously adhered to the Diner en Blanc International-enforced dress code, helpfully emailed to patrons a few days prior. “Wear White. Please no ivory, cream, off white, a dress with a black belt, light khaki pants, or any other color.”
I realized my espadrilles were ecru and became anxious at the thought of a “Diner” enforcer confronting me with an ultimatum: Either the espadrilles went or I did. I wasn’t sure which outcome I’d prefer.
“Dress Elegantly or Very Elegantly,” the email said. Dangerous advice. More than a few women wore wedding dresses. Mens’ white jackets flirted with Zoot suit territory. I did spot one man in a cream dinner jacket. I guessed he’d made it past the color guards.
“Very Elegant” also meant guests could wear a “mask, gloves, wig, or fascinator.”
For inspiration, guests were encouraged to consider Marie Antoinette, and to feel free to imitate her, provided that their wigs were “original” and of “high-quality” and, perhaps it went without saying, but it was said, “white.”
Washington is rather late to this white social craze. Diner en Blanc began nearly 30 years ago in Paris when, the story goes, a group of friends met up for a picnic in the Bois de Boulogne, a large public park on the western edge of Paris, and wore white so they could find each other.
I put aside for the moment why friends would fail to identify each other without dressing like Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island. Perhaps they weren’t very good friends.
In any event, the founders clearly tapped into some thwarted social longing.
Thousands of people had been waiting to join this white army. The concept became contagion, and ‘Diner’ has now spread to Paris, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Abidjan, Cape Town, Canberra, Auckland, Vilnius, Moscow, Shanghai, Singapore, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and now Washington.
By Diner en Blanc’s count, groups in nearly 90 cities, on every continent save Antarctica, have either hosted or have signed up to host a dinner.
The Paris event draws 15,000 people. In Kigali in 2014, a man proposed to his girlfriend at ‘Diner.’
Diner en Blanc licenses its brand to local organizers and teams up with partners—winemakers, cruise lines, luxury brands.
As I gazed at the picnickers greeting their new friends outside the Carnegie Library, someone handed me a white plastic Venetian-style mask emblazoned with the logo for Apothic Wines. I wondered whether this spectacle wasn’t the perfect union of a cult and a pyramid scheme.
I confess to having a cynical streak when it comes to social events in Washington. “This town,” as the journalist and author Mark Leibovich has aptly coined it, has a taste for the self-conscious. (If you’ve ever attended the White House Correspondents Dinner, you might call it an unhealthy addiction.)
But Diner en Blanc seemed just too knowing. Too broad, despite its air of exclusivity. Not only did I not expect to see many bold-faced names or politicos, this felt like exactly the kind of event that sends the collective eyes of Washington’s ruling class rolling skyward.
My judgy antennae were tingling as I scanned the grounds for any notables and landed on one of the ex-cast members of the Real Housewives of D.C., the one-season flop that followed the antics of five self-proclaimed socialites whose most notorious peer, Michaele Salahi, caused a diplomatic and national security incident when she crashed a state dinner at the White House honoring the Indian prime minister.
So, no, this was not a Washington party.
And that seemed to suit everyone just fine. No one was star-gazing. The novelty of the whole event was the attraction. It was like a Hallowe’en party crashed into a high school prom.
As I settled into my table, I chatted up my companions. Across from me was a young woman who’d won a Facebook contest sponsored by Celebrity Cruises and had come as their guest, and brought along her mother.
“I win contests all the time, mostly radio call-ins,” she told me. “I thought this prize was actually a cruise. Like up and down the Potomac. But this is fun.”
She slipped a white rose behind her ear and poked through the picnic bag Celebrity Cruises had provided, filled with a Waldorf salad, pate, cheese, cold fried chicken, and caramel custard and strawberries for dessert.
“This is so pretty, just so pretty,” her mother marveled as the grounds of the Carnegie Library, which on a given day can look pretty ratty, became festooned with white linen tablecloths, towering centerpieces of white roses and gladioli (there was a prize for best centerpiece), and as the sounds and sites of popping champagne corks punctuated the late summer air.
The woman’s mother looked a tad wistful, as if there was something familiar amid the alien revelry.
I asked if she was from Washington, and she nodded. “I used to come to this library after school with my boyfriend,” she said.
“Did you get any studying done?”
She flashed me a mischievous grin.
The city has been transformed since those days. Just two blocks away, where a massive parking lot and make-shift bus depot once stood, is the new CityCenter, a luxury development with two-bedroom condos starting north of $1 million, gilded retail tenants including Hermes, Louis Vuitton, and Salvatore Ferragamo, and several fine-dining restaurants, two helmed by celebrity-chefs Daniel Boulud and David Chang.
Today, you have more options than ever for an elegant night out in D.C., and you’ll pay more for it, too.
I wager that for some of the Diner en Blanc guests, this was a big night out. Their costumes were, for the most part, not remotely gimmicky. They were elegant. Earnest.
People proudly showed off the contents of their picnic baskets—all food that they’d cooked themselves and perhaps had spent a few hours lugging downtown.
Two sisters sitting at my neighboring table laid out a whole-roasted fish, slathered with a scarlet red chili sauce. I wondered if the rules prohibited cross-table sharing.
When the diners had finished their desserts, and the sun had gone down, sparklers were passed around and lit, the signal that dancing was about to begin.
Maybe it was the two (okay, three) glasses of white wine, but I felt my social Grinch heart growing a few sizes bigger.
We may have been all dressed in white. But we were, as a lot, mostly African-American, followed by white, with a ribbon of Asian and Latino throughout. We were old. We were young. We were gay. We were straight.
I couldn’t tell who was rich and poor. A woman in a stunning silk gown could have been an intern as easily as a partner in a law firm.
What these people were not was the type I’m used to suffering at so many social occasions. No one was looking over their neighbor’s shoulder to see who they really should be talking to. No one asked what I did for a living. It was a delightfully douche-free affair.
“It’s not ‘this town,’ it’s ‘that town,’” one of my dining companions succinctly observed. And that’s healthy.
The timing of “Diner” was significant in its own way. Next weekend is the last of summer. The kids are heading back to school.
After Labor Day, the “real” social Washington’s calendar will kick into gear with a slew of events, including the annual PEN Faulkner dinner, a party at the French ambassador’s residence, and—of course—later comes the Washington Winter Show.
A woman who takes part in these annual rituals confided to me that she dreads the quickening calendar. She sounded already exhausted by it.
How sad not to look forward to elegant parties and glamorous balls, filled with beautiful people eating delicious food in a splendid location, which “Diner” offered.
What a shame to take all that for granted, to see it as an obligation you have to suffer.
The relative absence of social events that aren’t controlled by a rarefied league of wealthy, politically influential Washingtonians has long kept this town from becoming a real city. We need more reasons—like “Diner”—to bring together people who don’t occupy the same space, who aren’t all playing the same game.
I give those Parisian friends who couldn’t recognize each other in a park some credit. People clearly yearn for this kind of community. The list to join this year’s “Diner” was hundreds of people long.
And knowing a “somebody” couldn’t get you to the front of the line. You had to know someone who’d come last year, who wanted to come again, and whose idea of a great night out was to break bread with 2,000 new friends. How civilized.