Dîner à San Francisco: How the Paris of the Pacific Interprets the White Dinner

Dîner à San Francisco: How the Paris of the Pacific Interprets the White Dinner

Half the fun is not knowing the location until a couple of hours before the party starts, just like in Paris. But this is San Francisco’s version of Paris’ secretive Le Diner en Blanc, called Le Diner à San Francisco, so the other half of the fun is the creative way the Paris of the Pacific interprets the event’s rules of fashion, décor, location and food.

The basic rules are the same – a secret venue, dress code and table décor are white, bring your own food and join a crowd of 4,000 in one of San Francisco’s outdoor locations. The sweep of white filling a distinct local is one level of amazement. The other level is that it’s personal. Each participant brings their own personality and creativity to the dress and décor, including elegant lighting that glows magically as darkness sets in.

“We wanted this to be different than the French version,” said Nicole Benjamin, Founder and Co-owner of Handmade Events, the event company hosting Le Diner. “We wanted it to be creative, and focus on décor and food.”

The Paris Dîner en Blanc, or White Party, is a private, secret dinner party whose attendees are a list of friends of friends. Each summer, it pops on the Paris scene with 10,000 people dressed in white suits or dresses bringing their own tables, chairs, food, drink, white table cloths and décor to one of Paris’ historic locations. Imagine rows of white-draped tables and white-dressed diners filling such locations as the Louvre courtyard, the Palais Royal gardens, the Place de la Concorde or the parvis of Notre Dame.

It all started in 1988 in the Parc de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne when a Frenchman wanted to celebrate his return to France with some friends. To recognize each other, they wore white. From that first picnic, it has grown to 10,000 “friends” and replicated throughout the world.

In Paris, no government permissions are required and the police do not try to break up the party. Everyone is well behaved, or they are off the invitee list, a shameful social déclassé. There are rules to follow in behavior (attendees leave with all trash so the location is left spotless), food (champagne is required), and seating (men on one side of the table, women on the other.)

“You must respect that San Franciscans, who are some of the most dedicated foodies, have their own ideas about food and wine parings,” said Benjamin. “We really wanted it to be an expression of individual creativity and of San Francisco itself, with no restrictions on height of table décor or what you could bring to eat. The only restriction was to wear white. The rest was up to each individual.”

But also true to San Francisco, Benjamin and her team were required to obtain city event permits, meet security requirements, follow neighborhood noise level restrictions, enforce alcohol laws, manage crowd control, enforce battery-operated lighting only requirements, hire trash professionals to clean up, and more.

“Five years ago when we started this, we were lucky to find a person at City Hall who understood the value in picnic traditions,” said Benjamin. “In fact, she was the one who convinced us to supply the tables and chairs, another difference from the Paris event. The permit process is still a challenge, but San Francisco believes in this.”

The email with the location was sent to attendees at around 2:00 pm on Saturday, September 12. The venue is . . . the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park, the site of the first Le Dîner five years ago. Attendees checked the weather and Karl the Fog, the Twitter persona of San Francisco’s famous fog. Karl was happy, as fog had returned to the city. “Domination,” he tweeted. Attendees added white sweaters and scarfs for the 5:00 – 9:00 pm pop-up party.

The Music Concourse is located between two museums – the fine arts de Young and the California Academy of Sciences. It began to evolve from its green park filled with fountains, statues, low trees, hard-packed dirt paths and a music bandshell into a lake of white tables accented with a crowd of smiling people strolling about, admiring table décor, food, drink and each other’s white outfits.

The clothing range was amazing. From men in sharp white suits and felt hats, to women in elegant frothy dresses with Baby’s Breath tucked into upswept hair, to a table of Vikings in white horned helmets, faux sheepskin boots and bustiers, plus lots in between. Groups celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, weddings and the fun of a pop-up event in white.

Table décor ranged from simple bouquets of white flowers to a 6-foot high white gauze canopy with balloons floating underneath. When it turned dark, the balloons lit up, creating a soft glow under the awning that added to the electric candle golden light. The foodie highlight of this table was dessert – a tall chocolate cake with white bubble icing.

Tall décor was the trend. One set of tables had a 1930s theme with tall, slim glass vases filled with two-foot high bouquets of white feathers. Strings of clear crystal hung inside the vases and throughout each feather grouping. Attendees wore white flapper dress, with feathered headbands and even more glitter.

Another table canopy wrapped in white gauze angled upward and supported a crystal chandelier and disco balls. Food was stacked on étagères to add to the upward feeling. Come darkness, the disco balls sparkled.

One table sported a four-foot white tall Eiffel Tower wrapped in small white lights, while another table had a Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s iconic symbol. Blue glass stones were scattered under the bridge to represent the bay’s water.

Back to the Viking table. It was designed to be a Viking ship, complete with fierce dragon masthead and tall white sail. The Vikings themselves were dressed to kill. The women were in white bustiers, cute blouses and short skirts and dresses, while the men wore white tunics, capes and blond mustache and beard combos. Everyone donned horned helmets and leg coverings of white fur or cloth. They carried goblets of champagne, along with swords, axes, flails with spiked balls and lengths of chain. They had plenty to eat and drink, and asked visitors to come “plunder the table.”

For an hour starting at 8:30 pm, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (thanks to sponsor Acura) supplied fun music in the bandshell. The crowd danced and enjoyed the contemporary swing music. Then at about 8:45, the people in white started slipping away. Lights were extinguished, tables were undone, trash was stashed or ready to be ported out and leftover food was packed up. Just like they arrived, the people in white left the Music Concourse as orderly as they arrived.

They’ll return next year for the 6th Annual Le Dîner à San Francisco, at some amazing location they won’t know about until two hours before the start time. Karl the Fog will probably be there too. It’s San Francisco.

Martha Sessums is the France Today Ambassador for San Francisco

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Martha Sessums is the France Today Ambassador for San Francisco. Intrigued by France since her first stroll along the Seine, Martha and her husband often travel to Paris to explore the city and beyond. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, delighting in its strong Francophone and French culture community. She was a high-tech public relations executive and currently runs a non-profit continuing education organization.

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