Started in Paris as "diner en blanc," the mass dinner-party… (Gene Sweeney Jr. / The Baltimore…)
In Paris, the pop-up party materialized on the cobblestones in front of Notre Dame cathedral. In Chicago, it was held under the watchful eye of the Picasso sculpture on Daley Plaza.
And on Tuesday night, when this trendy movable feast arrived in Baltimore, it again was in a unique setting: With the Domino Sugar sign casting a red glow from across the water, more than 200 guests descended on a pier at the foot of Caroline Street in Fells Point for the city's first "Diner en Blanc."
"This really is Charm City," said Jonathan Scott, who works in real estate. "It's really enchanting."
Indeed, on a breezy evening, with tables lined up along the pier behind the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum, the dinner party took on a magical quality. As in Paris, where the first such dinner was held, the scene assumed a Gatsbyesque glamour, with festively attired guests unpacking the picnic baskets they brought. Guests sipped Champagne and dipped into cheese and fruit trays, salad bowls and sandwich platters as the lights on the pier cast a gentle glow.
The party was organized by William Hankins, a retired hospital administrator and world traveler, who had seen footage of one of the Parisian dinners and decided to stage one here in Baltimore. The concept is simple yet alluring: What if you held a dinner party for hundreds or even thousands, who all agreed to wear white and show up in a public space whose location is kept secret until nearly the last minute?
Hankins assembled a group of friends who planned the event and invited their friends. They decided on a slight variation — instead of the blanc attire and tableware of the original, they would go with noir.
"We're old, and it's past Labor Day," Marsha Jews, one of the organizers, said with a laugh. As director of events for the museum, she had just the right location, the pier, which offers a more than 180-degree panorama of the city, from Canton to Tide Point to downtown.
As a singer crooned the standards, guests arrived from various meeting points around town, including Druid Hill Park and the Canton Starbucks, where organizers gave them their driving instructions. Until then, it had been an exercise in trust — that their friends weren't leading them down some crazy path or scavenger hunt.
"I told everyone: Just don't drink any Kool-Aid," joked District Judge C. Yvonne Holt-Stone, making a Jim Jones joke at the expense of her hostess, Valerie Fraling.
Fraling, a Social Security Administration analyst and columnist for the Afro, had for weeks been fending off friends' inquiries about the location.
"I've been getting bribes and incentives to tell," Fraling said with a laugh. "On Friday, people I was with were saying, 'Val, why don't you have another drink …?'"
For many, though, the mystery was the main event.
"How often do you get invited to a party that you don't know where it's being held?" said Victor Holliday, a producer with NPR. "We should all have more mystery in our lives."
As night fell, and breezes extinguished most of the candles, the city lights sparkled. Passing bicyclists and dog-walkers stopped to watch and wonder what was going on. A passing water taxi barely created a ripple.
"This is the kind of atmosphere where someone would fall in love," Norris Ramsey, an attorney, said as he sipped bubbly from a flute. He would include himself in that group, except for one fact: "I'm already in love!" he declared, winning a smile from the object of his affections, Salima Siler Marriott, the former state delegate and deputy mayor.
If one night is never enough for the romantics in town, Hankins said he's already planning another event for June, and that one will involve all-white attire.
"My philosophy is: one time around," Hankins said of his love of elaborate parties. "You're only given one time around. They may applaud, but there won't be an encore."