Undercover Picnic Under Cover

Diner en Blanc Boston 2015 Takes over Boston City Hall

by April Steele

French import, Le Dîner en Blanc, returned to Boston last Thursday night after a 2 year absence.  Attendees of the secretive pop-up picnic never know where it will be held until the last minute.  Though attendance is mandatory for confirmed guests, heavy rains caused a rash of last minute cancelations from those put-off by the prospect of Le Dîner sous la Pluie. Heartier members, who honored their social contract, found their commitment rewarded with a sheltered location in the courtyard beneath Boston City Hall in Government Center.

The guests, who are required to dress in white from head-to-toe and to bring their own tables, chairs, elegant place settings and picnic suppers, came prepared with white or transparent umbrellas with matching rain ponchos.  Guests queued in staging areas throughout Boston and Cambridge awaiting further direction from volunteers, each responsible for guiding 50 guests to the mystery location.  Due to the intermittent rain, traffic was more snarled than usual and guests struggled to reach their rush hour meeting locations. Many took advantage of DEB Boston’s partnership with Luxe Valet, an ingenious alternative to car parking that utilizes a smart phone app to unite drivers with uniformed valets who will meet your car anywhere within Luxe’s service area, take your car and park it, and then return it to you wherever you may be.  As we headed into Boston, we keyed our meeting destination into the app and were assigned a valet named Mustafa who was waiting for us curbside at the corner of State and Kilby Streets.  We unloaded our bulky cart, table and chairs, handed our keys to our courteous valet and congratulated ourselves for not having to stress about finding a place to park, and for not having to drag all of our things from a parking garage to our meet up spot. (Even better, another valet met us at Government Center to pick us up at the end of the evening. Had we parked in the State Street Garage, we would have been schlepping all of our things on the ten minute walk back to our car.)

State Street Meet Up
State Street Meet Up

My first Dîner en Blanc experience was in 2012 when the event debuted in Boston. My husband and I had such a great time, I was disappointed that it didn’t return in subsequent years.  When news was finally announced that we would have an event this year, I was quick to sign on as a volunteer. In my capacity as a pedestrian/table leader, it was my job to communicate with the 48 other guests that would occupy our bank of 50 tables, and to guide them from a predetermined meet up point to our ultimate location.  Even volunteers are kept in the dark about the dinner’s location until about an hour ahead of time. I left my husband waiting on our designated street corner to welcome our guests while I dashed to a nearby address to get our “marching orders” from our group leader. This included a schematic of where we were to set up our tables at City Hall Plaza and a departure time for our group to leave—as groups were staggered to arrive at 5 minute intervals.

As Bostonians emptied out of their offices at 5PM, they encountered increasing numbers of white-clad couples dragging folding tables and chairs or pushing carts overflowing with cascading white flowers and picnic baskets and table linens. One of the guests in my group had managed to get all of their picnic items into a hiking backpack with a rolltop table and folding chairs strapped to his back. Others had hampers and luggage carts and dollies with bungee cords securing their equipment.  I checked each guest’s ID, checked them off my list, distributed white wristband (which served as tickets) and fielded a few phone calls from frantic guests still stranded in traffic.  We lined up on State Street, under our umbrellas, taking care to leave the sidewalks and business entrances clear, as workers hurrying home gawked at us as they skirted puddles and avoided the spray of water from taxis and trucks.

Transportation

If you’ve ever admired the whimsical fascinators or elaborate hats worn to royal weddings, the Kentucky Derby or polo matches, here was your chance to wear such confections as ladies flocked together in feathered headpieces, tiaras and flowered wide-brimmed hats. I have to tip my own hat to Montreal designer Nina Wozniak who created my plumed fascinator which featured a miniature white table set with a candelabra, wine and cheese plate!

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Not to be outdone by the women, the men in our party were also a fashionable sight to behold.  Handsome husbands David and Kevin were dressed identically in white pants and matching Ralph Lauren Polo shirts, Richard looked on point in a white-knit skullcap that suited him to a T, Greg sported white gloves, and my own husband, Joe, looked cool in a summer weight sweater from Calvin Klein.

Matching Attire

Guests who had begun to become acquainted online chatted in line while they waited for me to lead them to the mystery location.  At four minutes before 6 o’clock, I started leading us to Government Center.  Because I had worked on State Street, I knew the most direct route to take to minimize stairs and street-crossings, so we wouldn’t further impede traffic.  However, we arrived on the plaza well ahead of the groups that were supposed to be there before us. I admit that I had a moment’s panic!  Where was everyone? Fortunately a police officer on security detail signaled us to ascend a ramp leading up to an elevated courtyard beneath City Hall where we were instructed to set up our tables.

Boston’s City Hall is easily the ugliest building I’ve ever seen.  The concrete slab monstrosity constructed in the Brutalist architectural design looks for all the world like a parking garage. I was not aware that there was a courtyard there. The billowing white table linens, flickering (battery operated) candles, and artistic floral arrangements juxtaposed against the severity of the thick concrete walls worked, somehow. The cold, austere courtyard was transformed into a scene of ethereal beauty and elegance.

Tablescapes ranged from simple and sophisticated hydrangea blooms in crystal vases with tapered candles, to elaborate constructions with hanging chandeliers or lanterns and balloon arches. One of my favorite activities is to wander around the venue and admire the different table settings, cut crystal, vases and flowers.  No matter how eclectic the displays, each is a work of art, chosen with thought and care and a respect for the spirit of the evening.  Together, they are unified by the all-white color scheme, bringing all of us together for a communal experience that celebrates each other, and the appreciation of good food, good wine and good company.

Tablescapes

At the front of the courtyard, we had a low wall affording us a terraced view of City Hall Plaza, the puddled pavement mirroring Government Center like a reflecting pool. With the city lights diffused by the mist, the rain-slicked cement gave the illusion of a moat around a fairytale castle fortress.  The White Heat swing orchestra filled the air with the sounds of celebration, accented by the tinkling of stemware as revelers toasted one another. Lanson Champagne, Whitehaven and Apothic wines were available from the event sponsors if purchased ahead of time—those who neglected to order in advance relied on the kindness of strangers for a bit of bubbly or vino.

The pavement reflected the city lights like a mirror.
The pavement reflected the city lights like a mirror.

 

To signal the start of dinner, guests swirled white napkins.  Some beautiful food was  shared.  Though many different catered baskets were offered as a convenience, the serious foodies were out in force with charcuterie and crudités and all sorts of cheese, heirloom tomatoes with basil, duck confit, and oysters.  I prepared skewers of different types of grape tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, salt and cracked-pepper encrusted beef tenderloin with horse radish cream sauce and roasted garlic potatoes (kept warm in a thermos.) For dessert I brought white merengue cookies to share and homemade tiramisu topped with fresh whipped cream.  The catered baskets truly paled in comparison to the meals consumed by those who put in a little time and effort.  The purchased meals had meager portions and were not a good value for the prices paid. Fortunately, new friends were happy to share with those with less bountiful baskets.
After dinner, the waving of fiber optic “Sparkler” wands heralded the opening of the dance floor. (Though they do not provide quite the same visual effect as authentic sparklers, they are a safe alternative to those banned under Massachusetts’s fireworks prohibition.)  The dancefloor, set up toward the back of the courtyard, was open to the weather through a center skylight. The gentle spritz of rain was refreshing to those dancing to Latin rhythms as a DJ called out the steps to those unfamiliar with salsas and merengues.

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Some areas were open to the weather.
Some areas were open to the weather.

Dîner en Blanc grows exponentially each year, with an ever widening circle of friends receiving invites.  According to tradition, ticketed guests are “commanded” to attend and no shows are struck from future invite lists, as are those that do not respect the dress code. Members in good standing are re-invited and allowed to sponsor a pair of guests who in turn can invite another couple, and so on. The best part of Dîner en Blanc is the sense of community it inspires.  Fifteen-hundred strangers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds gathered together to share their mutual joie de vivre.

It's a unique opportunity to meet new people who share the same joie de vivre.
It’s a unique opportunity to meet new people who share the same joie de vivre.

Though the picnic may appear spontaneous to observers, this impression could not be further from the truth.  Attendees put a lot of advanced preparation into the evening.  While finding white clothing is usually easy at end-of-summer clearance sales, finding white footwear, accessories and easily transportable tables and chairs is another story. Many who waited until the last minute found rolltop tables out of stock at Amazon.com and at local brick and mortar stores. The good news is, those who purchased items for this year’s event will be in good shape for next summer.

If it all sounds like too much trouble, and you can’t imagine adhering to a strict dress code or spending money to eat your own dinner among hundreds of strangers, this is probably not the event for you.  But if you enjoy making an effort to share a magical evening with others who appreciate the traditions, you’ll find that Dîner en Blanc exceeds all expectations.

At the end of the night, no trace of the party is left behind.
At the end of the night, no trace of the party is left behind.