Somehow, Philadelphia is the top city for Diner en Blanc in the country. The true No. 1. We invented the United States, and now we’ve perfected dining al fresco in a surprise location while wearing what is the blandest shade of the color palette. Guys, Ben Franklin would be so proud!
Our dominance at Diner en Blanc has been earned even though a quick search of social media shows how many people despise the event. Some people in Philadelphia really seem to hate it. Yet there are multiples more who love Diner en Blanc, enough for a U.S. record-setting 5,300 people to turn out Thursday night for the dinner, held in Franklin Square. And that number doesn’t include the 43,000 more who wanted to attend but weren’t allowed entry. New York has about the same number of applicants but a population five times the size of ours. I decided to find out why Diner en Blanc such a big deal here.
Two years ago, I was one of the most hated Diner en Blanc guys. A story that I wrote, even though we tried to be nice (I swear) by mentioning spoiler alert in the headline, gave away the location of the dinner at the Navy Yard a few days before it was set to happen. Not the favorite thing for fans of Diner en Blanc, who don’t find out until just before the event where they’ll be eating.
On Thursday night, I attended the dinner knowing nothing about the location and hung out with a group led by Carmen Lennon.
She’s been going to Diner en Blanc nearly since its Philadephia inception in 2012. Lennon regularly attends the high society events in the city — the gala scene, things like Marian Anderson Awards and The Red Ball.
“This is my favorite,” she said, “by far.”
Lennon likes Diner en Blanc for the crowd. Those galas bring in 1,000 people or so and, as she says, “the same people.” To her, Diner en Blanc brings in a different crowd, one that does turn away 40K or so people each year but still manages to be as diverse or more diverse than any major event in the city.
The 5,300 people who piled into Franklin Square Thursday night featured mostly women. There was a fairly even mix of white and black people. Most people appeared to be in their 30s and 40s, there were definitely exceptions. Not all of them were Philadelphians. Kim Knight had traveled up from Washington D.C. with a friend. She wanted to experience the historical feel of the city.
Some of them, like Jen, Eileen, Dena, Samantha and Gina, gather from various parts of the Philly metro area. They used to attend with their significant others until a year ago, when the women got so sick of them complaining about the walking or carrying the chairs and tables to the secret dining location.
“I was like, ‘I can’t do this with a man ever again,” said Samantha, who’s been attending since the first year.
The Fitler Square resident doesn’t attend any other major events in the city. Diner en Blanc is the only one. She likes it for the surprise and the way everything is plotted out in secret.
At about 6:30 p.m. Thursday, we began journeying toward the location where Diner en Blanc would be held this year from the meeting point near the Convention Center. Many people thought we’d be climbing on buses and headed to somewhere much farther. Instead, we walked to Franklin Square.
The walk was really embarrassing. That’s the only way to describe it. Wearing a white shirt, white pants and white shoes while walking through Chinatown, you feel like an idiot. You feel like everyone is staring (as you should), and they are (as they should). You feel a little too elitist, the top complaint lodged against the whole event, and amplified at a time when the city is divided over a statue of a man who’s come to represent police brutality. Tuesday night, thousands of people gathered about a block from the Diner en Blanc starting location. They were marching in solidarity against racism, and in honor of the victims of last weekend’s white supremacist attacks in Virginia.
But people who attend Diner en Blanc say it’s not elitist. Diner en Blanc costs $90 for two people. It may be hard to crack the lottery and actually get in, but event-goers point out it’s more affordable than a dinner at many Center City restaurants, and certainly cheaper than galas and other major events.
The insane part — and what draws so many people — is in the clothing, the decision to wear all white and walk through the city in broad daylight that attendees say is an equalizer.
“You let go of your ego,” said David Dee. “ You have to give up a little bit of yourself.”