White tablecloths, delicate glassware, fine champagne, coordinated sparklers, and a formal five-course meal are just a few of the intriguing details accompanying a most curious event that takes over a public space in Paris each year without any formal authorization… The French know how to bend the rules for those who really want to live.
For the past 35 years, on one mystery evening in June, thousands of people dressed exclusively in white gather in a surprise location for a picnic that is rumored to be the greatest night of the summer. Bringing all of their finest dining materials to a meeting place announced only on the day of the event, guests of the Dîner en Blanc then walk to the designated public space that is revealed just 10 minutes before the start time to set up their formal dining arrangements.
How does one participate in this secretive extravagant soirée? You have to be invited.
What has now become a vast and highly anticipated event began from humble roots. The Dîner en Blanc was started with a simple desire: to meet friends and share each other’s company over good food. Back in 1988, a Frenchman by the name of François Pasquier wanted to organize a party in Paris after having spent a few years away overseas. The problem was that he did not have enough space in his Parisian apartment to host everyone he wanted to invite.
While pondering where to have a gathering as big as he was envisioning, François came across an elderly couple, fashionably dressed head to toe all in white, having a picnic in the Bois de Boulogne, the forest just west of the city limits. That’s it, he thought. Wishing to recreate for himself this intimate moment that he encountered, François called up a dozen of his friends and told them they would meet for a picnic in Bois de Boulogne – and that they must wear white.
But why stop at a dozen? The beauty of hosting an outdoor event in a large public space is that loads of people can come join in on the fun. So, he instructed each of his friends to invite another dozen friends, and even those friends could invite more friends – as long as they dressed in white. Not only was this part of the theme, but it also made it much easier to find the party of strangers in the middle of a forest.
The dinner on that early summer evening turned out to be so successful that he and his friends wanted to repeat the event every year. The participants of the original soirée went on to invite more and more guests each year, leading to the creation of the official Dîner en Blanc – which is now an international event held in over 120 cities across 40 countries.
In keeping with the tradition since its inception, invitations to the Dîner en Blanc are strictly by word of mouth. This year, this lucky writer was cordially invited one week before the scheduled date was announced. Thus, at 8 p.m. on June 22, we gathered to dine alongside thousands of strangers amid the splendor of the Place des Vosges.
Beginning with the ceremonial towel twirl – the moment when everyone in the park symbolically claims the territory to let authorities know we are not going anywhere – we then started our feast with oysters and champagne. For the appetizer, my group’s Leader provided a show: frying fresh gambas over a flame torch held by her partner.
Moving onto white truffle risotto and lemon finocchio salad, we chatted and marveled at the elegance of the evening as confused passersby looked on in awe. The dinner finished with cheese and white chocolate meringues before the invitees headed to the center of the park, where music was blasting as guests sang and danced around a bronze statue of King Louis XIII. At 11 p.m., the sky lit up with sparklers and the world seemed to pause.
In a surreal display, a group of strangers from all ages and all walks of life joined together in unity to enjoy a formally informal summer gathering. In theory, this peculiarly exclusive event is actually wildly inclusive in nature. Free to attend and always held in an accessible public space made for people to enjoy, Dîner en Blanc just seizes the opportunity to celebrate all the beauty this magical city offers us with friends we’ve met along the way and strangers we come across that night. They just do it in the most French way possible – with flair.
At the stroke of midnight, everyone vanished along with their tables, chairs, and empty bottles, taking care to leave the space in a better state than when they arrived. And just like that, the bubbling laughter and cheer of this highly anticipated event ended in nothing but a whisper… Until next year!