Le Dîner en Blanc hosts its inaugural secret picnic party in downtown Denver

Le Dîner en Blanc, a secret picnic party at which diners dress head-to-toe in white, kicked off its first year in downtown Denver on Saturday, bringing almost 900 attendees together to dine and dance a summer night away.

The Colorado event is one of the latest chapters in a storied history. The first Le Dîner en Blanc was hosted in Paris in 1988 by François Pasquier, who later said he simply wanted to gather friends for a picnic and thought that dressing in white would make it easier for people to find the group. Since then, it has spread to more than 100 cities around the world.

Local philanthropists learned of the party and created their own version of the gathering in 2010, using the event for nine years as a fundraiser for the University of Colorado Cancer Center. A portion of proceeds from this year’s Le Dîner en Blanc also went to CU.

One of Saturday night’s event hosts, Lauren Ripko, successfully brought the official party to Colorado with co-hosts Michael and Amber Handby, initially receiving the contract for the Mile High City in 2020. COVID-19 was among the factors that delayed the Mile High City’s first official dinner until this year, Ripko said.

“We would love to produce this for years to come,” she added.

Partygoers were instructed to don their finest white attire – and bring their own white tables and chairs – and meet at designated departure points around the metro area where guides led them to the secret event location.

Around 6 p.m., one group crowded under Dancers, the iconic, 60-foot-tall white figures, at Sculpture Park near the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Event-goers soon learned a hard lesson of attending Le Dîner en Blanc: Either invest in a dolly to wheel your table, chairs, picnic basket and cooler, or risk sweating through your dress.

During the nine-minute trek, excitement built. Cars with waving passengers honked as diners crossed downtown streets. Upon reaching Tivoli Quad, a 4-acre park at 1000 Larimer St. on the Auraria Campus, cheers went up as other attendees were spotted in the clearing.

With the most strenuous part of the evening over by 6:30 p.m., attendees got to work lining up their tables in rows and setting up for dinner: white tablecloths, napkins and centerpieces that ranged from the simple (white candles and bouquets) to the extravagant (tiered cake stands and at least one elaborate flower arch).

Castle Rock resident Vanessa Antonsen, 50, was attracted to the event due to “the exclusivity of it, and the fact that it was a tradition that existed for as many years as it has.”

She attended the picnic with her 21-year-old daughter, Alyssa Antonsen.

“It’s here in Denver, so I had to be part of it,” Vanessa Antonsen said. “I would do it again, absolutely.”

A string quartet played at the start of the breezy evening, with an aerial acrobat performing, suspended in a large hoop nearby. Corks popped as picnickers secured pre-ordered bottles of wine and champagne. Those who didn’t carry picnic baskets retrieved their boxed dinners on-site from caterer House & Howell Social.

Promptly at 7 p.m., the event hosts greeted their guests, inviting the traditional, celebratory napkin twirl. With hundreds of white cloth squares spinning in the air over attendees’ heads, Le Dîner en Blanc had officially begun.

Aurora resident Toyia Lewis, 34, learned about the event on Instagram. She summed it up as “good people, good vibes.”

“It’s quite the undertaking to get so many people together in one dress code under a lot of different rules to follow, so it was pretty amazing to come together and see all different people from different walks of life enjoying the same event,” said Jaleesa Collins, 34, of Baltimore, who sat at Lewis’ table.

With diners giving impromptu toasts among friends and strangers, conviviality spread across the sea of white garb. There were attendees in white tuxedos, formal gowns and beaded mini dresses, top hats and fedoras, feathered fascinators and broad-brimmed sunhats, crowns and masquerade masks.

Dinner spreads were just as varied with elaborate trays of charcuterie, chicken tikka masala, sushi, salads and fruit trays, cakes and chocolate mousse. One table even packed a crawfish boil.

Atlanta resident Christina Isaacs, 37, is a Le Dîner en Blanc veteran. The Denver picnic marked her 34th gathering. She usually accompanies her mom, who’s now gone to 35.

Isaacs heard about the event years ago in Atlanta, but first attended the annual party in Orlando. “The longer it’s been in the city, the harder it is to get in,” she said. She deemed Denver’s inaugural event as “marvelous.”

“We only get better from here,” Isaacs added.

As the sun made its descent, participants lined up to pose at a mirrored photo booth. A DJ from Ignight Entertainment — with saxophonist Jeff Miguel accompanying — took over the music, presiding over the event like the best of wedding DJs.

Hundreds of picnickers danced into the night, with a man in a unicorn head and a woman in a gossamer, light-up winged cape stealing the show. Shoes were shed, and at least one reporter’s white dress suffered red wine spillage.

Taking breaks from the dance floor, diners socialized at their tables or strolled the grassy square, admiring table displays and attire, under the light of the moon and downtown buildings. At 10 p.m., they packed up their tables and chairs, and dispersed into the night.

Lori Stich Obluda, who volunteered as a table leader, reflected on the evening as similar to a wedding reception without the family drama. Three friends joined her for her first Le Dîner en Blanc.

“Honestly, it was so heartwarming to see so many (and such diverse!) people having a great time,” Stich Obluda said, adding, “My heart is still full!”

Those interested in learning about potential future Le Dîner en Blanc events can check the event website, denver.dinerenblanc.com.

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