Opinion: Dîner en Blanc is Deeply Uncool

Can $51 buy class and exclusivity? Er, no.

August 17, 2018

By Neal McLennan / Photo: Pangcouver

As a general rule, what men in their mid-40s think is cool is of little consequence. And that goes double for someone who just bought a pair of New Balances while on vacation because his flip-flops were hurting his back.

But once in a while the weight of public service intervenes. There are a multitude of reasons to attend Diner en Blanc (you’ll get no circumflex from me, mes amis). You’re visiting from Bermuda and all you own is white linen. Or you’re driving to a tennis match at Jericho or the VanLawn and your Bentley breaks down. Or…well, that’s it actually.

The fact is I can’t fathom why people pay—I think it’s $51 this year—to dress and up “chic picnic” (that’s what they call it on the website).  It’s not the food, because you don’t get any (unless you pay extra). That’s right, the $51 is for the pleasure of attending an event at a public space. And hauling your own table to boot. What’s the $51 for? I don’t think I can beat the sublime clarity offered on the website:

Membership and transaction fees are used to cover the inherent costs of training, support and technological services to all the organizers around the world, to enable them to organize their own event, as offered by Dîner en Blanc International. These services allow us to preserve and convey the concept’s values, to sustain our corporate standards by regrouping them within a single network and, to develop technical tools. The membership offers members a number of online services that will grow in the coming years. Dîner en Blanc International is working on updating its platforms so that all participants of a Dîner en Blanc event become members. In addition, this annual fee will allow members to register for as many Dîner en Blanc events in the world as they wish.

Wait, what? Apple’s terms of service are clearer than that.

But, you say, quit being so literal you old New Balance-wearing crank. People do all sorts of things that don’t make financial sense—buying an Audi, when a Toyota Camry will do the job almost as well. People go to Diner en Blanc because they’re told (by media outlets like ours) that it’s exclusive and cool. But it’s neither. Let’s tackle the exclusivity first:

Let’s take a snippet from the website again: We wish to maintain the spirit and quality of the event. For this reason, we prefer to favor quality over quantity. Let’s park for the second discussing what sort of people prefer “quality over quantity” when they’re talking about human beings and let’s focus on what sort of exclusivity the brand has. You are probably aware that our event is not alone. There’s one in Victoria. And Kelowna. And Whistler. And Trois Rivieres. And Edmonton and Edmundston, which is evidently also in Canada. Oh yeah, there’s also one in Fort MacMurray, where, let me tell you, dressing in all white is ill-advised when production is rolling. And that’s just Canada—I haven’t even mentioned Indianapolis, Cincinnati or Decatur, Illinois. The point is, if you’re looking for exclusivity, you’re looking in the wrong place. But the weird thing is the organizers want you to think this is akin to getting backstage passes to Migos (I’m desperately hoping this reference isn’t dated).

And as for the cool? (again from the website): Le Dîner en Blanc recalls the elegance and glamor of high French society, and guests engage one another, knowing that they are taking part in a truly magical event. There are no disruptions: no car traffic, no pedestrian traffic—only amazed and astonished looks from passersby observing the scene before them. And participants, like spectators, wonder whether it’s all not a dream…

Really? Is that really what they think people are thinking when they spy you in a pair of white dockers eating at a folding card table at Jack Poole Plaza? I have a few suggestions that might more accurately describe what passersby are thinking (and the words elegance and glamour don’t appear). Also high French society (is that different from French high society?) is not something anyone should want to aspire to: it’s essentially equal parts elitism, classicism  and snobbery, three “virtues” that I feel like most residents of Vancouver are proud to have be non-endemic in our city. Anyone who tells you they long to live in the time of Marie Antoinette is either vapid or cruel or both.

And what sort of person disdains “pedestrian traffic?”

But why should I—or anybody—care? I suppose I shouldn’t. I should treat the event the way I’d treat a person who enters a conversation but won’t stop mentioning how great NCIS New Orleans is. They’re harmless and clueless. You shrug your shoulders the first few times, but after the 15th mention, coupled with the condescension that you’re missing out on Scott Bakula’s genius and you finally want to say enough already. The sad thing is what we do lack in Vancouver is actual community. Not one based on a classist culture, but one based on why most people live here in the first place—that we don’t give into that BS about what clubs you belong to or who your parents are (we’ll leave that to our pals back East). And the biggest irony is that real dyed-in-the-wool snobs would never deign to go to Diner en Blanc in the first place, because it’s not exclusive at all (we reported that more than 6,000 people went last year).

Here’s an idea: how about a group of friends going to the beach for a picnic and asking along a few new-in-town stragglers…and not charging them to come (artist George Vergette and friends used to hold a Ce Soir Noir evening in this vein). If you wanna dress-up like your fave Backyardigan, knock yourself out. Hell, if you want to dress like Ricardo Montalban do that too—but don’t strut around like you’re in on some insider secret. You’re just a dude eating dinner outside—and if that’s not enough for you in the gorgeous city…I say, au revoir.

And if you want really exclusive—try eating dinner in the sky.

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