How Did Dîner en Blanc Become Philadelphia’s Most Polarizing Event?

There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who are shopping for white folding chairs today, and those who would sooner set themselves on fire.

It’s not that I hate Diner en Blanc.

It’s more that I really, really hate Diner en Blanc.

That is, if Diner en Blanc actually exists. My working theory is that it doesn’t, that the organizers of Thursday night’s dinner party accessed my subconscious and designed an elaborate hoax based on my wildest nightmares and most visceral fears. Think Freddie Krueger, but with more seersucker and entitlement, less clawed gloves and face melt.

Far-fetched? Perhaps. But the alternative is believing that thousands of my fellow Philadelphians entered a lottery for a chance to buy $39 tickets to a dinner party that doesn’t serve dinner. That they’re seriously going to dress in head-to-toe white and drag their own tables, chairs, dishware and food into Center City during a heat wave. That — per the world’s most eye-stabby slide show — “once all the guests are settled in, [they’ll] spontaneously lift their white linen napkins to indicate the beginning of the dinner.”

What the website calls a “mass chic picnic in a public space” I’d more readily call a fresh hell. Although the organizers claim that those lucky enough to secure a seat will experience “the occasional amazed and astonished looks from passersby at the scene unfolding before them,” I’m not so sure. Last year I sat in traffic and weighed my options: On the one hand, it’s rude to drive through a dinner party, even if that dinner party shuts down Broad Street. On the other hand, Diner en Blanc.

I know I have plenty of company. Some are so offended by the evening that they’ve created spin-off events to mock and/or mourn the Blanc crowd. Diner en Sweatpants invites attendees to let it all hang out at the Schuylkill Banks. An archnemesis of sorts, Diner en Noir has an all-black dress code and donates the proceeds to charity. Was the Northeast’s Diner en Pajama Pants a clever, self-aware spoof, or simply business as usual at Cottman and Frankford? I’m not sure, but either way, I like their style.

But here’s the problem: Diner en Blanc is very real. Very real and very, very popular according to every social media feed known to man.

For every naysayer, there’s someone on the event’s wait list hoping to get the chance to hashtag their custom-ordered #DEBPHL15 floral arrangement. For every dissenter there’s a super-fan ironing her white tablecloths in anticipation. Say what you will, but the Diner en Blanc crowd is really looking forward to the opportunity to “conduct themselves with the greatest decorum, elegance, and etiquette” on Thursday night. And/or show off how much extremely disposable income they have. Either way, that’s not the point. The point is that they like something, and liking something so hard and so earnestly deserves a little credit in 2015. When I can bring myself to look at the photo galleries, I can’t help but notice that these people look perfectly happy and perfectly harmless.

My first instinct is to worry. Whereas most reasonable people would grant you some grey area on abortion or the death penalty, you’re less likely to find someone who says “I see their point, but …” when it comes to Diner en Blanc. More than anything else — more than even Donald Trump’s poll numbers – the night makes it quite clear to me that at the end of the day, there are no real answers. Like it or not, there are simply two very different kinds of people in this world: Those who are shopping for white folding chairs today, and those who would sooner set themselves on fire.

On the surface, this seems to mean we’re screwed. But at the same time, I can’t help but be encouraged (and amazed) by the fact that on Friday morning, we’ll all get on the subway and enjoy a reasonably functional day together.

I won’t be attending Diner en Blanc. But I will be raising a symbolic sparkler — from the comfort of my couch, which I can only hope if a safe distance from the night’s secret venue — to my friends who choose to partake on Thursday night. I don’t understand you people, and your idea of fun violates all that I know to be true and holy in this world. But I do think it’s pretty cool that we haven’t eaten each other alive yet.

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