f you come across thousands of people dressed head to toe in white Saturday evening, don’t be alarmed — it’s just Dîner en Blanc.
François Pasquier founded the “dinner in white” picnic party in Paris 25 years ago as a means for him to reconnect with his friends. He made sure his picnicking guests wore white so they’d be able to spot each other. Since then, the recherché dinner party has grown to include more than 40 cities worldwide, with thousands of guests donning their white sartorial best and lugging white chairs, a small, white table and a picnic basket filled with epicurean wine, champagne and food to a furtive location.
Dîner en Blanc arrived in Cincinnati last September because local couple Kate and Bill Baumann had read a 2011 New York Times article on how NYC was going to be the first U.S. location to host the event and would use the Paris Dîner as their template.
“I thought, what could be so great about carrying your tables and chairs that so many people want to do this?” Kate says. “Because it sounds like such an effort, I said there must be something to this.”
The effort runs the gamut from wearing vintage dresses, bringing votives and fresh flowers for the table setting and preparing a meal to feed yourself and your dinner companion for the evening. “That’s really what it’s all about: It’s the creativity that each of the couples brings to it and their own personal likes and so forth,” Bill says.
This year, there are prizes for superlatives like The Most Elegant Lady and The Most Elegant Gentleman; the winners receive a dinner at Orchids and Kaze, respectively.
The dress code is strictly white, and everybody adhered to it last year. “I was really surprised to see there weren’t a lot of brown shoes,” Kate says. “And guys were so proud of themselves. They went to all extremes: some of them spray painted their shoes.”
Shortly after discovering the Times article, the couple contacted Pasquier’s son in Montreal, who approves the addition of new cities.“The organizers in Montreal said, ‘Well, oh, Cincinnati,’ ” Bill explains. “Now there was kind of this quizzical nature about it. I explained to them about what is all happening in Cincinnati and the progress of the city and what a beautiful city we have.”
Pasquier’s son said yes and last summer the Baumanns organized the first Dîner en Blanc in Lytle Park — the location has to accommodate a lot of people and be beatific. Bill refers to the event as a pop-up community picnic or street performance art, in the sense that thousands of people show up concurrently to a secret location that’s not revealed until the guests are on charter buses heading there. There are only 13 U.S. cities hosting Dîner en Blanc, including metropolises like Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. “I think that says something about Cincinnati, that we’re having events that are being held in places like London and Paris and Sydney. I think it’s a compliment to Cincinnati,” Bill says.
To orchestrate the first annual picnic, the couple took a grassroots approach. They gathered a group of 80 people and presented them with a video of a Montreal Dîner en Blanc (the Baumanns attended Montreal’s 2012 event) and told them to spread the word to their friends. “We worked hard to reach out to a diverse group of ages and backgrounds and careers — just across the board,” Kate says.
“When we started, we didn’t know if there would be 500 people who would want to come to this or a thousand,” Bill says. “We had no idea, really. So when we had 1,100 people and still more people who wanted to come, we were quite amazed at that.”
This year, the attendance increased to 1,750 people with hundreds more on the waitlist.
Registration is done in three phases: Those who attended last year get first dibs, followed by those sponsored by friends who previously attended, and the third phase is a first-come-first serve of those on an online waitlist. Once the guests arrive at the locale with their wares, a group leader directs the couples where to set up and decorate their tables; the evening begins with a romantic dinner and ends with dancing to a Jazz band.
“The people make the night,” Kate says. “It’s that kind of journey there that at the end you say, ‘I don’t know what it is but it just was so much fun — a night like nobody’s ever had.’”
Dîner en Blanc is sold-out but you can find info for next year’s event at cincinnati.dinerenblanc.info.