The Secret Dinner

By Ken Mammarella

Le Dîner en Blanc is a “chic picnic” returning to Wilmington for the fifth time on Sept. 16.

It’s chic because participants must dress in elegant white (“Originality is always encouraged as long as it stays stylish and tasteful,” according to Wilmington.DinerEnBlanc.com) and bring a table, white chairs and a white tablecloth. White dinnerware is required, too. 

It’s also chic, in a popup-store-sort-of-way, because participants don’t know exactly where in the city they’re going until that night. Participants choose their departure points to the secret location, which determines where they will sit.

And an in-crowd feeling is boosted by how registration is released: first for previous participants and friends of the organization and leaders, second for others sponsored by people in the first group, and third for people on a waiting list — now 9,000 names long.

It’s a picnic because participants bring picnic baskets or buy one from an official caterer. 

Stylists Sherell and Michael Flagg started the Wilmington edition in 2018, with 1,100 people in Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park, followed by 2,000 on Market Street Mall in 2019. After a pandemic hiatus in 2020, it returned in 2021, with 1,900 in Rodney Square. In 2022, 2,300 people joined at Cool Springs Reservoir. Organizers this year are aiming for 3,000 at … a place they’ll announce on Sept. 16, the night of the dinner. The event is rain (white or clear raingear, of course) or shine. 

Fees include $14.50 for participation, $50 for pedestrians, $58 for bus riders. Then there’s the cost of attire, table and chairs, plus the cost of the picnic basket, champagne or wine. Catered refreshments are also available from Toscana, Desserts by Dana, Luxe Charcuterie and The Juice Joint.

The first FAQ on the event’s website is a jaw-dropper: Is it illegal? In Paris, where it began in 1988, it’s taken place without authorization, but the organization requires local hosts in all 80 or so cities worldwide to get permits and insurance. No worries in Wilmington: The city is an “official local partner.”

To better understand the event, we recently spoke to Sherell Flagg.
(The interview was edited for clarity and space.)

O&A: Why do you orchestrate it?

Flagg: Michael wanted us to bring DEB WILM to enhance the allure of Wilmington and more importantly, we wanted to bring the people together, to celebrate life and enjoy the company of friends and friends of friends. It helps to highlight and support our local businesses, which strengthens the dollar circulation right here in our state. Le Dîner en Blanc Wilmington boasts unity, and for that reason alone, we continue to do it. 

O&A: What is your personal menu this year (or, if you haven’t planned it, last year’s?)

Flagg: The funny thing is, we never get to eat — duty calls. We are so busy making sure everything is running smoothly, we have missed our meals every single year. Hopefully this year we will make time to eat. I will say, we drink a lot of the ice water provided annually by the Public Works department. 

O&A: What are the most memorable attires and foods you have seen? 

Flagg: The headpieces are always a showstopper, but I have seen people go all out with their outfits with capes and all. As far as the food is concerned, a group did a whole table row of a continuous meal, from one end of the table row to the other. That was pretty amazing. 

O&A: Have you heard about any new connections made among participants?

Flagg: Oh gosh, yes! We’ve had four engagements happen at the events. The first year, two guests got engaged on stage. Not only was that amazing, it turned out she was my cousin that I had never met. Someone also connected with her sister that she had not seen since her adolescent years. By the way, the couple that got engaged — my cousin — married on the anniversary of our first event. How special is that! 

O&A: “Le Dîner en Blanc has no political or ideological agendas and minimal branding. It is simply a friendly gathering whose sole purpose is to create a magical evening,” an FAQ begins. How is it magical?

Flagg: It seems almost magical how strangers become friends in such a short period of time. The secrecy, the décor, the venue, the beautiful guests, the entertainment … it all plays a part in the magic. But what tops it off are the smiles. The magic is in the smiles and in the love that is shared which becomes infectious.