The White Dinner is a love poem to friendship, joy, elegance, and the beautiful monuments of Paris. And each year it is an unforgettable night. Other cities have attempted to emulate it around the world, with little success. There is only one Paris, and the event is so revered and respected and perfectly executed that it is hard to imagine it in any other city.
It began some thirty years ago when a naval officer and his wife decided to celebrate their anniversary with their friends in a creative, unusual way, in front of one of their favorite monuments in Paris. They organized about twenty of their friends, everyone dressed in white. They arrived with folding tables and chairs, linens for the table, silver, crystal, china, maybe flowers, brought an elegant meal with them, set everything out, and shared a glorious celebration with their guests. The magic began on that night.
It was such a success that they did it again the following year, in a different but equally remarkable location. And each year ever since, the White Dinner has been a tradition, and more and more and more people attend, to celebrate the evening in the same way, entirely dressed in white, on a night in June.
The event remains by invitation only, which is respected by all, and over the years it has become one of the most cherished secret occasions held in Paris. The all-white dress code is still mandatory, including shoes, and everyone makes a real effort to dress elegantly and follow the established traditions. Each year the White Dinner is held in front of a different Parisian monument, and the possibilities are vast in Paris. In front of Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, at the feet of the Eiffel Tower at the Trocadero, in the Place de la Concorde, between the pyramids in front of the Louvre, in the Place Vendôme. By now the White Dinner has been held in a myriad of locations, each one more beautiful than the last.
Over the years, the White Dinner has grown so large that it is held now in two locations, with the total number of invited guests approaching fifteen thousand. It’s hard to imagine that many people behaving properly, arriving looking elegant, and following all the rules, but miraculously they do. “White food” and meals are encouraged, but above all a proper meal must be served (no hot dogs, hamburgers, or sandwiches). A real dinner is meant to be brought along, set out on a table on a white linen tablecloth, eaten with silver utensils, with real crystal and china, just as in a restaurant, or a home where honored guests are being entertained. Everything one brings must fit in a rolling caddy, and at the end of the evening, every scrap of garbage or debris must be put in white garbage bags and removed, down to the last cigarette butt. No sign of the revelers must remain in the beautiful locations chosen that year for the White Dinner. People must appear and disappear as gracefully as they arrive.
The police turn a blind eye to it, although no permits are taken out for the event, despite the vast number of participants (taking out permits would spoil the surprise), and remarkably, there are no crashers. An invitation to the White Dinner is much coveted and celebrated when received, but those who are not on the guest list never show up and try to claim they are. There have been no bad incidents or hostilities at the event. It is an evening of pure joy, reinforced by respect for fellow guests and love for the city.
Half the fun is not knowing where it will take place that year. It is a formal secret kept religiously by the six organizers. And wherever it will happen, people are invited in couples, and each couple must bring their own folding table and two chairs, both of regulation size.
The six organizers inform “subheads” of the evening of the first location where people are meant to gather. All invited guests are to show up with their caddies, tables, and chairs, at one of the initial sites at precisely eight-fifteen P.M. The two groups will dine in two different locations. The excitement begins to mount when the first locations are revealed, which revelers are informed of only the afternoon of the event. It gives one some rough idea of where the actual dinner might be held, but it’s all guesswork, since usually there are several possible beautiful locations within easy walking distance of that first location. All day people try to guess where they will be having dinner. People arrive promptly at their first location, dressed all in white and equipped for the evening. Friends find each other in the crowd, call out to each other, and discover with delight who is there. Spirits are high for half an hour in the meeting place, and at eight-forty-five precisely the final destination is revealed, no more than a five-minute walk from where they are.
Once the location is announced, each couple is assigned a space the exact size of their table, and they must set up in that space, in long neat rows. People often come in groups of couples, friends who have attended the event for years, and dine side by side with their individual tables as part of the long rows.
By nine o’clock, seven thousand people have reached the spectacular monuments that are the lucky winners for the night. And once they have arrived and been given their table location assignment, measured by the inch or centimeter, tables are unfolded, chairs set down firmly, tablecloths spread out, candlesticks produced, tables set as for a wedding. Within fifteen minutes, the diners are seated, pouring wine, happy, and beaming in anticipation of a spectacular evening among old and new friends. The excitement and the finally revealed secret of the location make the participants feel like children attending a surprise birthday party. And by nine-thirty, the festivities are in full swing. Nothing could be better.
The dinner begins about an hour before sunset, and as the sun sets, candles are lit on the tables, and after nightfall the entire square or place where the event is held is candlelit, as seven thousand diners clad in white, toasting each other with shimmering crystal glasses, silver candelabra on the tables, are a feast for the eye. At eleven P.M., sparklers are handed out and lit, and a dance band plays halfway through the evening, adding further merriment. At Notre Dame the church bells toll, and the priest on duty offers a blessing from the balcony. And precisely half an hour after midnight, the entire crowd packs up and disappears, like mice scampering into the night, leaving no sign that they have been there, except the good time that will be remembered forever, the friendships that were formed, and the special time that was shared.