The idea of strict rules does not have a pleasant or festive connotation. It’s certainly not the first thing to come to mind when thinking about a huge party. However, strict rules and secrecy were exactly how the organizers of Philadelphia’s first Diner en Blanc event pulled off an upscale flash mob picnic for 1,300 people.
The picnic, which began in Paris in 1988 among a group of friends, has grown into an international phenomenon. This was the second year it was held in the United States, and the first it was held in Philadelphia. Guests are to dress entirely in white and bring their own table, chairs, nondisposable china, table linens, food, and wine. They gather at prearranged meeting sites, not knowing where the picnic will ultimately be, and organizers lead them to the public space in which they’ll eat dinner and celebrate for the evening.
I spent weeks assembling all the necessities — a white sundress and sandals, white pants and shoes for my required +1, white chairs and a roll-up table (with very specific dimensions!), white dishes, white table linens, and most importantly, food and wine.
I’ll admit, accumulating all of these things was a bit stressful, but the preparation added to the anticipation of the event. Having put in significant time scouring the internet for the perfect table and thrift stores for the perfect dishes made me appreciate the finished product all the more. By the time I had assembled chairs, a table, dishes, and linens, food was unfortunately a bit of an afterthought. Still, we managed to pull off tortellini with homemade pesto and letter-pressed cookies to make myself feel better about my otherwise lacking menu.
By Thursday night, the hard work was over, and all we had to do was meet our pedestrian leader, Stormy, on the corner of 16th and Race. We didn’t know if we would be walking or taking public transportation to the secret location, and no one knew where we were going. When our pedestrian group of around 50 people had assembled, Stormy organized us by table number and led us down the street.
Apparently, I picked a good meeting location, because we didn’t have to walk far. As we got closer to Logan Circle, we converged with many other groups all in white, looking expectant. Soon we were all walking toward the fountain, then around the fountain, and setting up our tables. Though everything was the mandated white, participants injected personality into their wardrobes, place settings, and menus.
As picnickers broke out everything from pasta to shrimp to gourmet sandwiches to expertly packed Jose Garces picnic baskets that were available for pre-order, we played adult versions of Whisper Down the Lane. “The after party’s at Sofitel! Pass it on!” “At 7:30, we wave our napkins for a photo op!” “We’ll all wave sparklers at 8:45!”
As 1,300 sparklers lit up Logan Square, the live dinner music ended and Coldplay was pumped through the speakers, marking the transition from sophisticated summer dinner picnic to festive mingling and dance party. Party-goers shed their shoes and headed into the fountain with new friends they’d met during dinner.
We had to leave early enough to drive back to the suburbs and get a decent night’s sleep before work the next day, so we skipped out on extended fountain dancing and the after party. Walking away from Logan Circle, dazzling white under streetlights and candles, and back into harsh city greys felt a little like our carriage had been turned back into a pumpkin.
It turns out that all the rules that go into the event foster creativity, new friendships, and a sense of community. I plan to return next year, especially now that I have white folding chairs and a roll-up table. With these things out of the way, I can focus on bringing something more interesting than pasta.