Last night, a fleet of white buses carried white-clad passengers from pickup points around downtown for the first official Toronto edition of Dîner en Blanc.
Described on its website as “an evening full of elegance and surprises,” Dîner en Blanc is a “secret” dinner party where registered participants dress entirely in white and are taken to a location that isn’t announced in advance—usually a large public space like a park or historical site. Diners bring their own food and seating. The event is intended to create a refined communal experience. It originated in Paris in 1988, and instances of it have since been held in cities around the world.
The only missing white element at Fort York was a flag of surrender, as attendees took the summer showers in stride. (Most umbrellas matched the colour scheme.) Rain or shine, the dinner would proceed. While some diners donned clear plastic ponchos distributed by event volunteers, others soaked up the showers while erecting tables they had stowed in the buses.
Participants were responsible for decorating their own dining areas, resulting in a mix of white tablecloths, floral centrepieces and tealights. Their picnic baskets were loaded with everything from traditional picnic fare to three-course gourmet meals, all washed down with liberal amounts of wine.
The strict white-only dress code resulted in a mix of outfits. Men wore summery suits, Mediterranean-style attire, and jeans hauled out of storage. Women tended to prefer homemade hats, evening dresses, and even wedding gowns. Nicholas Wong, one of the three organizers of the event, enjoyed the creativity on display. “There’s a lot of effort,” he noted, “and we really appreciate that.”
Wong was involved in last year’s dry run of Dîner en Blanc at the Distillery, which drew 400 people. While that test skirted some of the event’s traditions (tables, chairs, and catered food were provided), this year’s was “totally by the book.” Planning began in January and eventually involved a team of 50 volunteers. There were about 1,400 registered guests. The coordination effort included preserving the mystery of where the event would be held until the last minute.
Though locations like Nathan Phillips Square were considered, the organizers chose Fort York because of its ample space, its greenery, and its historical value. The site fits what Wong described as the event’s “whole joie de vive.” Beyond the War of 1812–bicentennial aspects of Fort York, the site’s role as the birthplace of Toronto symbolically matched the first official edition of what organizers intend to be an annual event. The setting also provided an interesting visual contrast between the genteel diners seated in rows of white tables and the concrete skeletons of skyscrapers and clogged westbound Gardiner Expressway in the background.
Anyone who attended will receive an invitation for next year’s dinner, along with the opportunity to invite guests. Wong suspects there will be spaces for at least 2,000 people next year, some of whom might be among the 3,200 who were on the waiting list this time around. Steady growth has been a component of the event, with 15,000 now attending the Paris edition.
As the night went on, the rain eased and the umbrellas became decoration. Meals were accompanied by live jazz and operatic singing from a central stage. Friends toasted each other. A round of “Happy Birthday” was heard. Cameras were everywhere, including at an official photo booth. Underneath all the white trappings, it was an opportunity for friends and family to enjoy good food and company, out in the open.