It wasn’t too hot, or too cold, or too windy.
The evening was bright, with just a smattering of high clouds smeared with the pastel colours of the sunset.
For all those lucky enough to attend Saturday night’s Table for 1200 in the Exchange District, just east of Main Street, it was truly a moment of utter perfection.
The annual pop-up dinner — organized by StorefrontMB, a group that advocates for architects, designers and planners — was quite a sight. A single row of 150 rectangular tables, each set for eight dinner guests, stretched the entire length of Rorie Street, from Market Avenue all the way to Lombard Avenue and then through the plaza that separates the Richardson Building and the Fairmont Hotel, eventually curling around to barriers at the southeast corner of Portage and Main.
For those who have never attended the Table for 1200, this event is a clever mashup of fine dining and a pleasantly rowdy wedding social. Chefs Ben Kramer and Mandel Hitzer, two of Winnipeg’s culinary superstars, wooed the attendees with all manner of fresh and elegant tastes. The wine flowed freely.
Throbbing club music pulsated up and down the line of tables, echoing off the facades of the glorious turn-of-the-last-century buildings that lined Rorie. The patrons were resplendent in their mostly white attire — a Table for 1200 tradition — and wandered freely up and down the street with the adult beverage of their choice.
A perfect event like this doesn’t happen by accident. Architect David Penner, a mainstay of almost everything StorefrontMB does, is the event’s curator. He is kept busy during the year between events picking the location and planning out the logistics.
Penner also serves as the "guardian of the location." Attendees are not told exactly where they will be having dinner until the afternoon of the event.
In the commission of his duties, Penner must contend with many logistical challenges, including the need to acquire permits from the city to close down streets, bridges and other public spaces. And, of course, get permission to serve alcohol.
Food is most definitely the main attraction, but the booze is a critically important opening act. There’s nothing quite as empowering as sampling a petulant Argentinian Malbec in the great urban outdoors, wandering right down the middle of a downtown street.
There was a time in this city, not so long ago, when events like this were much more difficult to pull off. Provincial liquor laws were so antiquated, the whole idea of alcohol being served in a relatively unsecured environment was heresy. The city can, sometimes, make it a real chore to get the appropriate permits to close down a street.
It really takes people like Penner and groups such as StorefrontMB to push the edge of the envelope and help government see the reward that comes from taking a chance here and there. Winnipeg is host to a growing inventory of bold and fun events, from the downtown arts festivals to the pop-up markets that now invade Exchange District alleyways.
The city is not the enemy of this kind of fun, not really. City council, and the bureaucrats that support them, often want the very same things as the movers, shakers and event organizers. It’s just that the city is much more risk averse, and as a result, takes much longer to get things done.
An important case in point can be found in the city’s approach to growing its network of dedicated bikeways.
As reported last week by Free Press city hall bureau chief Aldo Santin, the city is embarking on a plan to build 2.2 kilometres of new bikeway — dedicated lanes protected by poured-concrete curbs — throughout downtown over the next three years. By all measures, it is a remarkably underwhelming accomplishment, both in terms of size and length of time to complete.
Other cities with the same objective have done so much more, in much less time, and for less money. Calgary and Edmonton, for example, were able to build three times more dedicated bikeway in four months or less, using pre-cast concrete barriers instead of going through the time and expense of digging up the roads and pouring concrete barriers.
St. Norbert Coun. Janice Lukes, for one, believes the Calgary/Edmonton model is the better way to go. Unfortunately, the rest of the city’s decision-making hierarchy isn’t so sure.
Lukes was told that using pre-cast barriers contravened the city’s existing policy for the bikeway network. To date, however, no one from city hall has been able to provide a rationale for why the Winnipeg approach — a strategy that has been mostly abandoned by more progressive cities — should be maintained. Or why the Calgary/Edmonton approach is inferior.
The default setting for most bureaucracies is to say ‘no’ to new ideas. That is why the elected officials are so important. They are supposed to vet new ideas and then signal to the bureaucrats when it’s time to embrace change and innovation.
On the bike-lane file, Winnipeg city council has failed profoundly to seize a new and clearly cost-effective idea that not only would create a valuable new transportation asset but also help build the appeal of a neighborhood still struggling to re-establish its viability.
The organizers of Table for 1200, with the full support of city hall, created a moment of perfect happiness. A downtown street that typically would have been quiet and dark was instead transformed into a magical celebration of food, drink, music and, most importantly, the true potential of downtown.
Let’s hope some of the people responsible for plotting the future course of the bike lane network were at that dinner, and are inspired to apply some urgency and boldness to their endeavours.
Perfection is often just one enlightened decision away.