The sun was low in the sky behind Habima Square on Wednesday evening, and the sparkling new white facade of the arts complex, as well as the smoothly paved stones of the open courtyard and its lovely sunken garden, were glowing gold and pink in the twilight. Suddenly, from all corners of the square, packs of revelers clad all in white began streaming in.
They carried tables, linens, chilled bottles of wine. Some had flowers and vases; others cigars, cheeses and baguettes. In a scene that felt so foreign in this corner of the Middle East, the crowd, some 300 strong, began opening their folding chairs, unfurling their tablecloths, and setting their makeshift tables. Diner en Blanc – dinner in white – had begun.
Diner en Blanc is perhaps the most famous pop-up picnic in the world, and Wednesday evening marked its debut event in Israel. The meal, which is one part flash mob, one part guerilla gourmet, and several parts pretentious fun, is the brainchild of Parisian Francois Pasquier, who founded the event in his hometown in the 1980s. Smartly dressed foodies in their crispest white are given a meeting point and a time, but the meal’s location remains a tightly guarded secret, with diners guided from the meeting point to the location by a handful of in-the-know guides.
With an all-white dress code and a strict set of rules covering everything from the diners’ plates and stemware (china and glass, please) to the dimensions and color of their portable table and chairs, Diner En Blanc is only for those who take their fun seriously. White diners have been held all across the world, from Sydney to Milan to Mumbai, and it was a new Israeli immigrant from Paris who brought the foodie phenomenon here. Pierre Levy arrived in Tel Aviv from Paris on December 31, and in addition to his French accent and his love of cigars, he brought with him a bit of insider knowledge, having attended several installations of Diner En Blanc in its original city.
“The White City, with its white night, was missing something, and that’s the white dinner,” Levy said, standing next to his mother, who had flown in from Paris for the event, and a crowd of fellow French immigrants.
The Tel Aviv Municipality was eager for Diner En Blanc to occur Wednesday evening as a kickoff to its annual White Night, a nonstop, sleepless all-nighter that Tel Aviv throws one night every June and consists of street parties, special 3 a.m. restaurant menus and all around caffeine-fueled moonlight revelry. That event will kick off around sunset on Thursday evening, and Diner En Blanc, Levy said, was the ideal amuse bouche.
“This is such a special event. Hundreds of people together, and in a bit they will end the evening by lighting sparklers. It’s magic. It’s also part of bringing Israel and Tel Aviv to the international scene. It’s a good way to bring Israel to the top of the cities who organize this dinner.” Diner En Blanc was pulled off with the help of TLV Internationals, a grassroots organization committed to improving immigrant life in the White City, as well as a team of volunteers who had heard about the dinner in other cities and wanted to experience it for themselves.
“I saw a picture of the event taking place in New York and it was just something that I felt had to happen in Israel,” said Tiferet Zussman, 24, one of the team of volunteers. “We’re a small country, but we like to party.”
Zussman and her team had to gain the municipality’s blessing, obtain security and insurance for the event, and oversee the purchase and distribution of dozens of picnic baskets (stuffed with wine and cheese and smoked goodies, they were available for purchase for diners who didn’t want to cook), as well as white parasols, fans and fedoras that added to the event’s jaunty feel, and sparklers and paper lanterns that were lit after the sun went down and the sky darkened enough.
Her team also reached out to a smaller band of volunteers who served as meeting point captains, who stood at a pre-arranged spot in Tel Aviv at 7:45 on Wednesday and were in charge of guiding their groups to the secret location.
One of the captains, a British expat named Ruth Waiman who arrived at Diner En Blanc in a white lace dress and a jaunty flowered fascinator, said she wanted to help because she loved what the event stands for.
“I got involved because I thought it was an awesome idea and it’s all in the name of fun and frivolity,” Waiman said. “I think flash mobs are quite known but obviously this kind of elegance and formality is new in Israel. I look forward to it becoming an annual tradition.”
Indeed, Diner En Blanc is poised to occur not once but twice each year in Israel, with a separate event scheduled for Jerusalem on August 10 for Tu B’Av.
In hot, humid and relentlessly informal Tel Aviv, it seemed odd that hundreds of diners would be willing to dress themselves in white silk and linen, don heels and hats and haul glassware to a secret location just to dine together. But as the sky around Kikar Habima darkened and those sparklers Levy spoke of were indeed lit, the scene did, indeed, seem magical.
“As someone who carried this table here, and shvitzed the whole way, I wouldn’t say the dinner was without a hitch,” said Jay Shultz, the founder of TLV Internationals, who was at the event with his girlfriend. “My shvitz level was pretty high. But something like this, which is so exciting and sexy, of course when it comes to Tel Aviv we were involved. Tel Aviv is the most exciting thing happening in the Jewish world.”
Diner En Blanc will have a second Israeli installment on August 10 in Jerusalem. Tel Aviv’s Lilah Lavan kicks of Thursday night across the city and lasts until the sun rises.