I wanted to hate Diner en Blanc. The concept — dress in all white, bring all of your own picnic gear, and head to a mystery location to eat dinner with a bunch of strangers — irked me. Diner en Blanc (DEB) is exclusive; there are three waves of invites with past attendees getting the first nod, new members referred by said attendees getting the second, and people who signed up on the waiting list getting the third.
There’s a Washington Post article dedicated exclusively to the question, “Why do people hate Diner en Blanc?” The answer, for many people, is that the event is pretentious — and expensive (more on that later). Started in 1988 in Paris, the global picnic pop-up has far outgrown its original concept: Francois Pasquier wanted to get together with a group of friends but needed a spot big enough to accommodate a large gathering. He picked Bois de Boulogne and told everyone to wear white so they could find each other. Cute, right? It was with this origin story that I armed myself for last night’s DEB Charleston.
I don’t like rules, especially when they’re grouped together, with words capitalized and made bold. I also don’t like getting in trouble (a remnant from high school days and an overprotective mother? We may never know). So I felt both nervous and rebellious when I showed up at the corner of Radcliffe and King streets last night, wearing a white dress, yes, but brown shoes and blue and green earrings. If that sounds silly, it both is and isn’t. While I didn’t “get in trouble” for my not-entirely-white outfit one poor gal did. Our group leader (since there are so many attendees you and your guests are put in various groups who meet in spots around downtown Charleston, walking to the secret location together) called one poor not-entirely-white outfit out. “Take those out,” she told a woman wearing a white dress and shoes and carrying a white purse. She meant the woman’s blue earrings. And she was serious.
Diner en Blanc is an amalgamation of contradictions. A pop-up picnic sounds fun and low-key in theory, but there is nothing low-key about Diner en Blanc. First, there’s the cost. The ticket to the event (if you even get invited) is around $40, which, admittedly, isn’t bad for an event in Charleston. The thing is, it doesn’t include anything. Nada. You have to purchase wine or champagne (no beer or liquor) through Diner en Blanc. For me, that was another $70 for two bottles of rose.
Fortunately I own a white dress with minimal stains, but a lot of people I talked to had to buy an outfit for the event — how many guys own white pants? You could buy food through Diner en Blanc or bring your own. I spent about $30 on my picnic, which was just enough food for me and my sister. We spent an additional $30 on white plates, cups, and linen napkins. Luckily our other guests rented chairs, a table, and a tablecloth, or else I’d have to include those costs, too.
So you spend all that money (and I can guarantee you my cost was much lower than most people’s) and then you … set up your own picnic. That means wrestling chairs and coolers down cracked Charleston sidewalks, trying not to stain or rip your new white outfit, sweating your ass off the whole time. The anti-blue earrings group leader was a task master, hurrying us to set up our tables in Wragg Mall Park, making sure every table touched. My sister and I laughed at the whole bumbling mess of the first few minutes, but as people threw their tablecloths into the air — you know those few seconds when they’re hanging above the table, then falling softly down — I started to see how this event could be really lovely.
DEB Charleston was diverse in age, race, and gender (although it skewed a little more female). Everyone appeared to be having a good time and my sister and I engaged in lively conversations with acquaintances and strangers — which is one of the goals of the evening. DEB succeeds in creating a community gathering and a carefree evening in your own, beautiful city. It’s unfortunate that the rules, expense, and some uptight group leaders overshadow that at times.
But with music from Black Diamond Band, followed by DJ Natty Heavy, the night never missed a beat, with almost everyone getting out on the dance floor — which was just the grass in front of the DJ booth — by the end of the night.
Would I go back to Diner en Blanc? I think so. I would save up some money for it, though. And I’d take the next day off of work. Because rosé hangovers are no joke. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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