Forget the six-course meal and the bevy of waiters swooping around your table. To really savor a beautiful fall evening in Paris, ditch the stuffy, gilded dining room and try a champagne picnic along the Seine or a melon-and-charcuterie potluck on the Champ de Mars. Paris is full of prime public spaces with great views that make superb—and free—locations for private parties. For breathtaking backdrops, the banks of the Seine rank high. Parisienne Amélie Nusse and 14 of her twenty-something friends threw a bachelorette's dinner—complete with tables, linen, candelabras and evening gowns—on a cobblestone quai of the Ile Saint-Louis. "We wanted something original with a superb view," she recalls. "It was a beautiful evening. We watched Nôtre Dame light up and the sun set over the old bridges." Further north, the Canal St.-Martin attracts a bohemian, red-checked tablecloth crowd, while the Pont des Arts footbridge spanning the Seine is a hot spot for more liquid picnics. American Mary Gallagher, a longtime resident, has been throwing champagne-and-crudités gatherings there—"the prettiest vista in Paris"—for years. Technically, picnicking in the city center is forbidden, notes a town hall spokesperson, but in practice it's tolerated in small groups and even large ones are commonplace. "We've had up to 100 people at a time, but the authorities are very tolerant," Gallagher says. "The police come by and smile. They know we'll leave the place cleaner than it was before." And for those who desire designer food for their picnic, there's no shortage of options. Renowned chef Alain Ducasse's bakery and gourmet food shop be
(boulangerie-épicerie) makes a mouthwatering gourmet picnic box featuring vitello tonnato
(cold, thinly sliced veal with fresh tuna and sauce on toasted bread), Mediterranean pasta salad, salt-and-pepper potato chips and a chocolate lollipop. At j30 it's a steal when compared to a sit-down dinner in one of his three-star restaurants. The truly hedonistic can opt for Le Cube from Petrossian, a three-tiered translucent picnic box that includes 20 g of caviar, "Maviar" tarama (a creamy spread made with the eggs of smoked cod), smoked salmon with artichokes and a fruit dessert. That will set you back j80 per person, but it comes with a tiny mother-of-pearl caviar spoon. The only disadvantage to al fresco eating—other than possible bad weather in autumn—is uninvited guests. Near the Eiffel Tower with my daughter recently, a well-spoken but disheveled man approached our picnic and asked if we couldn't spare "a piece of bread, some salami and that piece of cheese over there." We made up a plate and threw in some melon to boot. After all, we were reminded, part of the picnic spirit lies in the sharing. But you might want to hide the caviar.