On a recent fall evening illuminated by soft lights strung across Scudder Plaza, more than 350 Princeton University students and community members wearing white sat around long, linen-covered tables outside Robertson Hall. The gathering's purpose was simple: to bring "town" and "gown" together over dinner.
The Oct. 25 event, dubbed "Dîner Inn Blanc," was sponsored by the University's Office of Community and Regional Affairs, Forbes College, Dining Services and Facilities Organization, in partnership with Corner House, a nonprofit prevention, education and substance abuse treatment center in Princeton.
"The idea is to get the campus and community to sit down and have a common meal," Director of Community and Regional Affairs Kristin Appelget said.
While the links between the University and its neighbors are many, such as the annual Communiversity festival and student groups who volunteer locally, Dîner Inn Blanc was an informal way for people of different backgrounds to strike up conversations and get to know each other.
"The evening was a more intimate atmosphere. This was an intentional and personal way for students to meet people in town and vice versa," Appelget said. "We hope it also was an opportunity to create new connections between students and local families."
The event was an extension of Corner House's family dinner initiative, with the center opening registration to residents on a first come, first served basis. The name Dîner Inn Blanc was an homage to outdoor dinners en masse started in Paris and Forbes College's previous incarnation as the Princeton Inn.
Part feast and part flash mob, attendees were notified of the meal's location just a few hours beforehand by email and text message. The Forbes College dining hall closed for the night, and as the clock neared 6 p.m., students from the residential college and community members streamed into the plaza by foot to mingle and eat alfresco as the sun set.
Bainy Suri, who has lived in Princeton for two years, said she loves being in a college town and wishes she had more opportunities to meet students.
"Princeton University attracts some of the brightest young people in the country and there is a wonderful youthful energy here," Suri said. "I loved the evening. It was a win-win situation to come and eat dinner and talk with some of the leaders of our future. The Princeton students are as charming as I thought they would be."
A few tables away, sophomores Hanna Kim and Sam Lichtenberg shared laughs with Jack, 10, Andrew, 9, and Zander, 7. The group talked about their favorite school subjects, favorite vegetables and love for "The Magic School Bus" children's book series.
"This is a really great University initiative to help students meet people outside of the so-called 'Orange Bubble,'" Kim said.
Lichtenberg said it was a happy diversion.
"You often can get lost in your own student world, so it's really nice to have an excuse to go out for the evening and talk with young kids and families. This dinner is definitely something different," Lichtenberg said.
His new friends agreed.
"Tonight's fun because it's a change," Andrew said.
"It would be great to be a student here. They all seem very nice," Jack added.
As she watched her children run around the Scudder Plaza Fountain, Heather Kisilywicz said she valued the simple spirit of the evening.
"We live near campus, so we've enjoyed sitting down with some of the familiar student faces," she said. "It's nice because the event is just about dinner — there's nothing involved except enjoying each other's company."
That is exactly why Corner House promotes family dinners in the community, said co-organizer Janet Giles. She added that the idea is based on research that children who have regular family meals are less likely to engage in risky behavior such as drinking alcohol or doing drugs.
"Dinner does not have to be what it looks like in Norman Rockwell paintings. The point really is just to sit down with your family, whomever that may be, and learn something about each other," said Giles, a member of the Corner House Foundation Board.
Looking over plates piled with tomato and cucumber salad, roasted fall vegetables and rotisserie-style baked chicken, Director of Dining Services Stu Orefice said he jumped at the chance to be part of the event.
"The evening is about building relationships with the community, providing an atmosphere where you can have great conversations over a nice meal, and showcasing Dining Services' partnerships with local food purveyors," he said, as student musical groups serenaded dinner guests in the background.
In addition to the fare prepared by Dining Services, Terra Momo Bread Company, Bent Spoon ice cream, Infini T Café and Spice Souk, and the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative donated items for the meal.
Michael Hecht, professor of chemistry and master of Forbes College, said the evening also was an occasion for fun during a busy midterm week.
"Forbes is a very tight-knit residential college community. This is a chance for everyone to have a great time and a great meal," Hecht said.
Students often stay on campus because everything they need or want is right here, said freshman Julia Langer, so the dinner was an easy way to meet people who live nearby.
As a Princeton resident and University freshman, Sam Dercon said he appreciated Dîner Inn Blanc from both perspectives.
"I can't remember having an event like this when I was a kid in town," Dercon said. "It's great for the students and the families to come together on such a large scale."
Bethany Andrade, women's outreach coordinator at Corner House, said she was thrilled with how the evening turned out.
"We are grateful for this partnership with the University," she said. "It really was just a wonderful opportunity for people to come together to eat, to talk, to laugh and to share."