What I Learned (and Loved!) from my First Dîner en Blanc New York

Friday, July 31, 2015

"I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy."
- The Great Gatsby 

Last Tuesday, we joined 5,000 intrepid New Yorkers for the biggest Dîner en Blanc in the world to date. Dîner en Blanc started in Paris and is best described as a flash mob pop-up dinner with thousands of revelers dressed in white dining under the stars in picturesque city locations. Dîners en Blanc are held in some 55 cities spanning the globe in cities as varied as Shanghai, Honolulu, London, Johannesberg and Sydney. This was the fifth Dîner en Blanc to be held in New York City.

Dîner en Blanc New York 2015

Dîner en Blanc may be for you if you're someone who doesn't mind trading in a measure of inconvenience for an extraordinary experience. It takes work to attend Dîner en Blanc, that's for sure—but we found that a great deal of the fun was in the preparation. Partygoers are requested to dress entirely in white and many go out of their way to do so elaborately—we're talking forehead to waist-length feathered headresses, LED-lit hats and skirts, and Marie Antoinette-style wigs. We didn't go that far but we definitely had fun jazzing up our white outfits. J opted for a dapper vest and tie, while I went with this fun feathered fascinator. We confused quite a few people on the train (and on social media) who thought we had gotten hitched! Dîner en Blanc organizers, I may have a spin off idea for you: fancy a 5,000-person Mariage en Blanc?

Dîner en Blanc New York 2015

But I digress ... back to the particulars of Dîner en Blanc planning! To make a flash mob pop up dinner possible, revelers must bring their own tables, chairs, linens, china and stemware to the secret location, which is revealed just shortly before participants set up. Partygoers meet in groups of up to 200 in locations spread throughout the city before heading to and converging at Dîner en Blanc's chosen location. Given these conditions, you need to strike a balance between how pretty you want your table to look and how much stuff you're willing to lug from home to meeting point to secret location, recognizing that each location may be in drastically different parts of the city. Our meeting point was only two short subway stops away from the location but some people started out as far away as Lincoln Center and Cadman Plaza.

Hustling through the subway with all our paraphernalia was mildly stressful and losing our group leader along the way, even more so. But we followed the tsunami of white-clad revelers and easily arrived at this year's Dîner en Blanc location: Pier 26 at the Hudson River Park, with views of One World Trade Center to the south and a beautiful sunset over the Hudson River to the west. 

Dîner en Blanc New York 2015

With one Dîner en Blanc under my belt, I thought I would share the lessons we learned from our experience—not because I think I'm some kind of authority on the topic but because as newbies, our own experience was made that much bettter thanks to tips shared by those who came before us. So here's my 10 cents to add to the mix on how to have a great Dîner en Blanc experience in New York:

1. Go big or go home. 

What makes Dîner en Blanc magical is how invested participants are in the experience. It is a highly sought-after event with a waitlist of 35,000, so it seems a waste to show up then half a*s it. Flaunting the rules and sitting there eating out of a takeout plastic container really does detract from the overall experience, so I implore you: if you're going to participate, please do it right!

2. Turn that white outfit up. 

While you don't need to spend an arm and a leg, you'll be happy that you added a little something special to your white outfit once you're amidst a throng of spectacularly dressed Dîner en Blanc attendees. You can make your own headdress if you're crafty or scour Etsy for beautiful headbands, fascinators and headdresses. For those on a budget, try Amazon, where I found my feathered flower fascinator.

3. Bring out the good china.

Tablescaping turns into a something of a sport at Dîner en Blanc and I reckon you do not want to come in at last place. Some people go through great lengths to have a spectacular table, going as far as bringing in trellis canopies with hanging lanterns. You need not break your back; it makes a world of a difference to have elegant china, proper stemware, fresh flowers and flameless candles (these silver art deco ones are perfect). You can go cheap on items like the tablecloth and napkins (I got mine for a song through Amazon here and here). But because table real estate is scarce, every other piece you bring should enhance the overall aesthetic of your setting.

4. Oh ye culinarily challenged/lazy, let Todd English cater to you.

While it is not the absolute best food one will ever eat, Ca Va Brasserie provided a well-thought-out and generous selection of appetizers, salads, entree and dessert. What you are paying for is really the luxury of not having to shop for, cook and carry an extra few pounds of food on top of all the other things you are BYO-ing. Should you opt for this option, I would advise you to send one of your party to pick up the food immediately. Upon arrival, J made a beeline for the picnic and wine pick-up while I set up our table. He did not need to line up at all but by the time we were sipping our first glass of the bubbly, the pick-up line had extended halfway across the pier.

5. Watch your weight.

Given the commuting-with-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink part of this exercise, you would do well to pick the lightest table and chairs you can find. Ikea's $7.99 white Gunde chair fits the bill perfectly at just 4 pounds apiece. We used the Ikea Tärnö table but wished we had gone with this Coleman table, which weighs just 5 pounds, rolls up into a convenient carrying case, and has a larger surface. While the Tärnö table is the cheapest option, it's a touch too small and its slatted surface resulted in champagne spills every time glasses were set down slightly on the edge. The light, portable and sturdy Coleman table is worth the extra $10 and will probably be much more useful outside of Dîner en Blanc.

6. Practice makes party-perfect.

A week prior to the party, I did a dry run of my tablescape at home and realized how very little can actually fit on the surface of a folding table. Doing so was a reality check that stamped out my urge to continue shopping for beach-themed tchotchkes. This also ensures that you don't carry one thing more than necessary.

7. To cart or not to cart?

That remains a question. J thought we would have been better off with a luggage trolley or no cart at all since he found it cumbersome to carry our loaded shopping cart up and down the subway stairs. He did concede however that walking on the streeets was a breeze because we could just pile everything into the shopping cart. On hindsight, I think the luggage trolley might have been the more convenient purchase because it's easier to store and we could've used it for other events like the Jazz Age Lawn Party. I can concede this much: while insist the cart was a godsend, it may well be that it was the man carried the cart up and down subway stairs who deserves that credit!

To get on the waitlist for next year's Dîner en Blanc New York or
to find out whether there's a Dîner en Blanc in your city, click here

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