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French culture embraces a close dining environment among strangers. On Aug. 30, an estimated 1,200 white-clad participants gathered for a pop-up picnic in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)
French culture embraces a close dining environment among strangers. On Aug. 30, an estimated 1,200 white-clad participants gathered for a pop-up picnic in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)

DINING

In praise of the movable feast Add to ...

Hours before last week’s Dîner en Blanc was set to start, snowy puffs of people all dressed in white began drifting through downtown Vancouver. Almost everywhere you looked, opalescent balloons floated along sidewalks and bleached feathers flew from taxis.

I was right there in the middle of the flash mob (wearing a bridal-like skirt suit), wheeling a trolley stacked with fold-up chairs, a card table and baskets of ivory linen, crystal glasses and antique silverware. Pedestrians stared. Drivers honked. One perplexed woman grabbed my arm. “Are you getting married?” she asked. “Where is everyone going?”

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That was the big secret. After weeks of anticipation, the 1,200 guests who had scored tickets to Vancouver’s most extravagant pop-up dinner party gathered at meeting points around the city. Gradually, we were all led to the surprise destination – Jack Poole Plaza – cascading like a frothy waterfall around the Olympic cauldron.

Dîner en Blanc, which began 25 years ago as a chic Parisian picnic for a handful of friends, has exploded into an international phenomenon with more than 15,000 members in 17 cities. The sophisticated French soirée was a first for Vancouver. But given that 4,000-plus names were on the waiting list, it won’t likely be the last.

Although the most majestic of its kind, Dîner en Blanc is just one of many ephemeral food events that have been popping up all over the city. From one-night soda shoppes to secret dinners where mainstream chefs get to play around with lamb brains, the growing popularity of pop-up restaurants seems to be feeding a collective appetite for culinary adventure.

“People in Vancouver are easily bored,” says Robin Kort, founder of the Swallow Tail Supper Club, which organizes elaborately themed pop-ups about once a month. “Everyone here loves eating out at restaurants, but they’re always looking for new experiences.”

In the past year, Swallow Tail has transported diners to tropical tiki pig roasts; led them “Down the Rabbit Hole” to a surreal Wonderland setting, where forks spiked with cheese hors d’oeuvres hung from the ceiling; and brought them back to the future at a 1950s soda-fountain festival.

“People want to dress up in poodle skirts, drink boozy milk shakes and tell their friends stories about the restaurant that was there, and then it was gone,” Ms. Kort explains.

Judging by the ebullient vibe at Dîner en Blanc, pop-ups also provide an opportunity for buttoned-down Vancouverites to bust out of their comfort zones and make new friends.

“Joie de vivre is the essence of French dining culture,” says event organizer Tyson Villeneuve. “In France, bistro tables are set very close together. You always end up sharing a glass of wine with the people beside you. It’s about living in the moment.”

Of course, you don’t need 1,200 people, $100 tickets ($30 if you brought your own meal) and an eight-piece flamenco band to break bread with strangers. Since 2009, a group called Alfresco Tonight has organized potluck picnics that have popped up in parks and along seawalls all over Vancouver. Everyone is invited and the entry is free.

At Le Marché St. George, a funky café and grocery store in an East End heritage home, that communal spirit is fostered through one-off dinners in a homey upstairs apartment and family-style Italian suppers in the backyard. “The Italian nights are pretty romantic,” says shop owner Janaki Larsen. “It’s a big mish-mash of people. The kids run around with our chickens. And after dinner, the chef pulls out his guitar.”

For chefs, pop-up restaurants offer a chance to step outside their kitchen walls and mingle more intimately with diners (or create platforms for those that can’t afford their own space), collaborate with other cooks and experiment with daring dishes.

“It means I get to cook with lamb brains,” says David Gunawan, executive chef at Gastown’s recently opened Wildebeest.

While waiting for the restaurant’s delayed permit approvals, Mr. Gunawan launched ph5, an underground dinner series held in various locales at which he and several guest chefs shaved lamb brain over lamb tartare, served whole fermented cabbage heads in three different textures and smoked asparagus over hazelnut-tree branches. I’ll bet his diners weren’t bored.

In keeping with the pop-up genre’s penchant for the unexpected, Dîner en Blanc turned out to be a surprise send-off for Dale MacKay. Three days before the event, the Top Chef Canada winner announced the closing of his two Vancouver restaurants.

Mr. MacKay’s lackluster picnic boxes (stuffed with stale baguettes, watery gazpacho and overprocessed, single-note charcuterie) were the least memorable aspect of the night. Still, he deserves praise for not backing out. And it’s good to remember that great dining experiences entail more than just food.

Thinking back to that night, what I most fondly recall are all the laughs shared with strangers, that magical minute when 1,200 sparklers lit up the sky and a sweet walk home through the shallow streets of Yaletown, where condo dwellers have perfected the art of averting eye contact in elevators.

Nearing my apartment, I passed a couple dressed in white spilling out of a taxi. They smiled, I smiled and we all winked at each other as if fellow members in a secret club. I’d probably never recognize them in the harsh light of day. But for that fleeting moment, Dîner en Blanc gave us a rare sense of connection.

Follow on Twitter: @lexxgill

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