Tag Archives: Chicago

The (partial) triumph of the doggie bag

I can’t remember when restaurant servers began automatically asking if you wanted to take home food left on your plate but I know it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be that food was wrapped up only if patrons asked.

Probably some customers have always smuggled away food from restaurant tables, usually in napkins. Maybe to stop this, the custom of furnishing diners with bags in which to take home leftovers began after the second World War when upward mobility widened the dining public. Doggie bags went into production around the mid 1950s and their use increased tenfold in Chicago in the 1970s, according to a Chicago Tribune story.

But what is interesting is how many people were embarrassed by the practice. Well into the 1970s etiquette columns in newspapers got letters from restaurant patrons asking if it was ok to ask for a doggie bag if they didn’t have a dog. Usually the writer cited a spouse or friend who objected to the custom. A typical query is the one in 1964 from a wife whose husband “looked aghast” when she asked for a bag and told her it was in poor taste to take home table scraps. Nonetheless, with the exception of Elizabeth Post, Emily Post’s granddaughter by marriage, advice columnists invariably approved of doggie bags as sensible if not downright virtuous.

Doggie bags and other containers grew more acceptable in the 1970s – but not in all restaurants. The most expensive and elegant places, such as the Four Seasons and upscale French restaurants, showed a distinct dislike of the custom. Many would only provide a container if asked, and then often fashioned a swan of aluminum foil as if to say, “We don’t make a habit of this – this is just for you.”

There are a number of explanations why taking home leftovers has not always been universally accepted by restaurants or their guests. Some restaurants cite health concerns. French restaurateurs are offended by the idea of someone microwaving their cuisine; they believe food should be eaten just at the moment the chef sends it to the table. Diners who are the least bit intimidated by a restaurant or its servers are unlikely to ask to take food home. I was recently in a restaurant that does not permit guests to place jackets or coats on the back of their chairs. I am certain they would cringe at a request to take away uneaten food (and I’ve never seen it done there). In any event, the small portions served in this and other upscale restaurants does not allow any provision for future meals. Other restaurants handle the matter discreetly. In a power lunch spot in Los Angeles, diners must pick up their leftovers, packed in a tasteful tote bag, at the front desk as they leave. No styrofoam box sitting on tables through the dessert course there!

On a deep socio-psychological level the reasons doggie bags carry a degree of embarrassment and often are not accepted by elite restaurants are the same as why it’s considered poor manners to smack or gobble. Higher status accrues to those who disguise hunger by eating slowly, who appreciate small portions, and whose delicate appetite requires “appetizers” and little dainties with names such as “amuse bouche.” Leaving food on the plate communicates the absence of animal neediness. It is a version of Thorstein Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption” in that it flaunts the diner’s ability to walk away from perfectly good food.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Early chains: John R. Thompson

Although it is largely forgotten today, the Chicago-based John R. Thompson company was one of the largest “one arm” lunchroom chains of the early 20th century. We so strongly associate fast food chains with hamburgers that it may be surprising to learn that Thompson’s popular sandwiches included Cervelat, smoked boiled tongue, cold boiled ham, hot frankfurter, cold corned beef, cold salmon, and Herkimer County cheese, served on “Milwaukee Rye Bread” baked by the chain’s bakery. Thompson was proud that his meals were suited for sedentary office workers of the 1900s and 1910s. A 1911 advertisement claimed that lunch at Thompson’s “won’t leave you logy and lazy and dull this afternoon.”

Thompson, an Illinois farm boy, ran a rural general store as his first business. He sold it in 1891, moved to Chicago, and opened a restaurant on State Street. He proved to be a modernizer in the restaurant business as well as in politics.

He operated his restaurants on a “scientific” basis, stressing cleanliness, nutrition, and quality while keeping prices low. In 1912 he moved the chain’s commissary into a premier new building on North Clark Street (pictured, today). Thompson’s, then with 68 self-service lunchrooms plus a chain of grocery stores, became a public corporation in 1914, after which it expanded outside Chicago and into Canada. By 1921 there were 109 restaurants, 49 of which were in Chicago and 11 in New York (with a commissary in NYC). By the mid-1920s Thompson’s, Childs, and Waldorf Lunch were the big three U.S. chains, small by comparison to McDonald’s but significant nevertheless.

In politics Thompson served as a Republican committeeman and managed the campaign of a “good government” gubernatorial candidate in 1904. A few years later he failed in his own bid to run for mayor, promising he would bring efficiency to government while improving schools and roads. In the 1920s he financed a personal crusade against handguns.

Despite John R. Thompson’s progressive politics, his business would go down in history as one that refused to serve Afro-Americans. Or, as civil rights leader Marvin Caplan put it in 1985, “If the chain is remembered today, it is not for its food, but for its refusal to serve it.” J. R. died in 1927. Where he stood on the question of public accommodations is unclear but the chain faced numerous lawsuits by blacks in the 1930s. However the best known case occurred in 1950 when a group of integrationists led by Mary Church Terrell was refused service in a Washington D.C. Thompson’s. The group was looking for a case that would test the validity of the district’s 19th-century public accommodations laws. After three years in the courts the Thompson case (for which the Washington Restaurant Association raised defense funds) made its way to the Supreme Court which affirmed the so-called “lost” anti-discrimination laws of 1872 and 1873 as valid.

Over the years the Thompson chain absorbed others, including Henrici’s and Raklios. At some point, possibly in the 1950s, the original Thompson’s concept was dropped. By 1956 Thompson’s operated Holloway House and Ontra cafeterias. In 1971, as Green Giant prepared to buy Thompson’s, it had about 100 restaurants, including Red Balloon family restaurants, Henrici’s restaurants, and Little Red Hen Chicken outlets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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In the kitchen with Mme Early: black women in restaurants

It’s so hard to find anything about the history of Afro-American women in restaurants that I decided to go ahead with a sketchy story rather than none at all. As far as the “historical record” goes, you’d be tempted to think that they had no place in restaurants. That’s certainly false, but they were frequently out of sight. The notice placed by John Kirk in a New York City paper sums up black women’s primary role in public eating places: as cooks and kitchen helpers. Kirk advertised in 1781, “Wanted to hire an active Negro Wench, used to a kitchen, with a good character.”

In his 1899 classic The Philadelphia Negro, W. E. B. Du Bois praised black men for their prominent place in the city’s catering business, writing of “self-reliant, original business men, who amassed fortunes for themselves and won general respect for their people.” He mentioned no women, yet there is reason to think that black women not only did much of the cooking in both black and white restaurants but ran many of the eating places in black communities too. They rarely made fortunes but surely must have commanded respect.

Although black women are nearly invisible in 19th-century documents, we see glimpses of them near its end. Several women ran Denver restaurants in the 1880s and 1890s, including Miss Jane Outland in the 1880s and at least six others in the 1890s, including Tennessee-born Callie Fugett who kept a restaurant on Market Street. In Washington D.C. in the late 1890s a former slave known as Madame Early provided chicken dinners in a cabin called the Café Du Chat Noir. I wonder if she was Haitian.

The first meeting of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League in 1901 reported that women ran restaurants in Denver as well as Jacksonville and Tampa FL, including two in Tampa that were “among the best in the city.” A few years later, according to a directory of Afro-American businesses in Memphis, about half of the restaurants listed were run by women. Miss Lucy Hughes (pictured) ran the Climax Café and Ice Cream Parlor on N. Main where she sold “hot and cold lunches at all hours,” while residing with her mother, son, brother, and one male lodger who worked as a kitchen helper.

Overall, black women had even fewer employment opportunities than black men. The Department of Interior reported that in 1910 almost half of the 2 million employed black women were farm laborers. Private laundresses came next in the list, followed by cooks in private homes, hotels, and other settings. Only 2,734 women ran restaurants, probably humble eateries such as the one pictured here, one of four run by black business women in Gainesville GA ca. 1913.

After World War I things began to change in big cities. Middle-class black women opened fashionable tea rooms where they provided dainty lunches and hosted afternoon card parties. Chicago’s 1923 blue book of Afro-American society lists a number of these, such as Mrs. E. H. Hord’s Delmonico Tea Room on Prairie Avenue. In Pittsburgh, Mrs. A. E. Bush, a former pharmacy manager and wife of a prominent life insurance executive, opened the Melrose Tea Room which she decorated in old rose and blue. I have found no record of how black tea room operators dressed their black servers but I strenuously doubt they put them in mammy costumes as did so many white restaurateurs of the 20th century.

After the 1960s some black women who ran or cooked in restaurants acquired celebrity status. After her divorce, Helen Maybell opened the Soul Queen Café on Chicago’s near south side. In the 1970s the statuesque Helen (pictured), who was active in the NAACP and loved elegant gowns and furs, opened a second restaurant in which she hosted fashion shows. Leah Chase (who co-owned and cooked at Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans) and Edna Lewis (who promoted Southern cooking, authored cookbooks, and cooked for Café Nicholson in Manhattan, Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, and others) became venerated figures in their lifetimes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Dario Toffenetti

Who would predict that a boy growing up in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1890s would make his fortune by selling Idaho baked potatoes? But that’s exactly what Dario Louis Toffenetti did. Born in 1889, he came to the U.S. in 1910, allegedly after being recruited to peddle ice cream from a cart in Cincinnati. Disillusioned with that project, he soon traveled westward, selling baked potatoes at a Wisconsin mining camp, then becoming a bus boy at the dining room of Chicago’s Sherman House. In 1914 he opened his first restaurant in Chicago.

He was ambitious and would quickly develop into a canny marketer. In 1916 he enrolled in night school at Northwestern University’s School of Commerce. In 1921 he opened his second restaurant, on S. Clark. At a time when advertising, marketing, and public relations were making giant leaps forward, he was quick to implement the latest tactics. He advertised heavily and “named” the food sold in his restaurants. When he promoted ham, it was not generic ham but “Roast Sugar Cured Ham” from packer Oscar Mayer. (“It’s no wonder these Ham Sandwiches make your mouth water! Oscar Mayer’s ‘Unusually Good’ Approved Hams are used.”) By 1937 he had six restaurants in the Chicago Loop under the name Toffenetti-Triangle.

TriangleAd32According to accounts, “D. L.” wrote his own colorful advertising copy, such as, “These hams are cut from healthy young hogs grown in the sunshine on beautifully rolling Wisconsin farms where corn, barley, milk and acorns are unstintingly fed to them, producing that silken meat so rich in wonderful flavor.” Equally over the top was his copy for Idaho baked potatoes, with references to a “bulging beauty, grown in the ashes of extinct volcanoes, scrubbed and washed, then baked in a whirlwind of tempestuous fire until the shell crackles with brittleness…” Customers who had not previously eaten baked potatoes soon learned to ask for “an Idaho.” Another heavily promoted dish, “Old Fashioned Louisiana Strawberry Shortcake,” was “topped with pure, velvety whipped cream like puffs of snow.”

To build trust with an always-skeptical public, he featured himself in his ads (bald head and all), often adding his signature. In a 1930s Depression advertisement (pictured), he pledged to keep prices low without reducing quality. When Prohibition ended, he announced that he would serve beer, but not “in any fashion that might offend our most fastidious women patrons.”

ToffenettiNYC1942Another factor in his success was winning catering contracts at two world’s fairs, Chicago in 1933 and New York in 1939-40. Following the NY fair he outbid Louis B. Mayer for an immensely valuable piece of Times Square real estate on the corner of 43rd and Broadway. He hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a two-story, glass-fronted moderne building (pictured), outfitted with an escalator and a show-off gleaming stainless steel kitchen. The restaurant served 8,500 meals on opening day.

Dario was president of the Chicago Restaurant Association for seven terms (1936-1943). After his death in 1962, the business was conducted by other Toffenetti family members until about 1980. The Times Square restaurant closed in 1968.

Unlike many other immigrant restaurant operators who were characterized (often unfairly) as running “holes in the wall,” Dario Toffenetti was celebrated by the organized restaurant industry as a model progressive restaurateur.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Taste of a decade: 1890s restaurants

1893NYCAs the decade starts there are over 19,000 restaurant keepers, a number overshadowed by more than 71,000 saloon keepers, many of whom also serve food for free or at nominal cost. The institution of the “free lunch” has become so well entrenched that an industry develops to supply saloons with prepared food. As big cities grow, the number of restaurants swells, with most located in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts, and the Midwest where young single workers live in rooming houses that do not provide meals. Southern states and the thinly populated West, apart from California, have few restaurants.

Cheap restaurants such as lunch counters, lunch wagons, and ethnic cafés are the leading types, buoyed by the heavy immigration of Southern Europeans, particularly Southern Italians. Chinese restaurants become more common in the East. More unescorted women patronize restaurants, particularly in downtown shopping districts and around office buildings where they work. Bigotry increases and, despite civil rights laws, Afro-Americans face greater rejection by restaurants.

An economic panic in 1893 sends the country into a severe four-year-long Depression. Self-service lunchrooms which operate on the honor system begin to notice that one out of every ten patrons shaves their check. Interest grows in an “automat” from Germany in which food is not accessible until money is deposited in a slot. Rumors spread that one will debut in St. Louis and another in Philadelphia.

1893LadyinRedNear the decade’s end, the “Gay 90s” commence and those who are able and so inclined pursue the good life, which increasingly includes going to restaurants for the evening. It is still considered somewhat disreputable to do this, so some people go out to dinner only when visiting another city.

Highlights

1891 The Vienna Bakery restaurant of Los Angeles creates a stir when it advertises that it never serves “come backs” (food left on other people’s plates). “When a meal is served its remains are thrown away,” it insists. The following week it reaffirms the claim and further boasts, “No Chinaman Handles any of the food cooked at THE VIENNA.”

1893 Chicago is full of horse-drawn lunch wagons which cluster around railroad depots and the entrances to Jackson Park to take advantage of the crowds attending the World’s Columbian Exposition.

delmonicobdwy5th26th921893 A drunken man fires five shots into Delmonico’s in New York City (5th Ave. and 26th St., pictured), later declaring he believes in equality among the classes and wanted to “give the rich people I saw in there enjoying themselves a good scare.”

1894 The Maverick Restaurant opens in Golden, Colorado, for the express purpose of serving 5-cent meals to the vast army of unemployed men who earn credit to pay for the meal of meat, potatoes, and a vegetable by cutting and stacking wood. Unlimited amounts of bread are included but no butter.

1894 In Chicago, jobless men are thankful for free food that saloons provide with the purchase of a beer. One declares, “This free lunch is all that keeps me alive. I have been out of work for three months…. Five cents now buys me a meal and another nickel goes for lodging. That is what I live on and I consider myself lucky.”

Marston's3501895 Competition from cafés and restaurants in Massachusetts has just about wiped out the old boarding houses where renters had all their meals supplied. One reason is that people prefer restaurants because they get to choose what and when they eat. – Boston’s Marston restaurant, established by sea captain Russell Marston in the 1840s, opens a women’s lunch room on Hanover Street.

1896 With the passage of the Raines Law, which permits only hotels to sell liquor on Sunday (the busiest day for many restaurants), some New York restaurants begin to permit prostitutes to ply their trade in upstairs rooms which they have furnished with beds to qualify as hotels. The Maryland Kitchen on 34th Street, known for Southern cooking, and Gonfarone’s Italian restaurant in the Village are two of the many which take this route.

1897 In Michigan and Indiana bills are introduced in the legislature to outlaw French on menus. The Michigan bill is introduced by a legislator who had an embarrassing experience in a Chicago restaurant. Unable to figure out a menu, he ended up with two bowls of soup and some toothpicks.

1897 In the midst of the bicycling craze, two debutantes open a pink and white tea room serving lettuce sandwiches and café frappé to cyclists in Greenwich CT. Meanwhile a black cyclist who stops at Chicago’s Old Vienna café on Cottage Grove orders a lunch that never arrives. When he presses the manager, he is told, “You ought to know we don’t serve n*****s here.”

1898 During the war between the United States and Spain, public opinion against Spain whipped up by “yellow” (nationalist, sensationalist) journalism causes some restaurant keepers to rename “Spanish omelets.” Instead they are listed on menus as “tomato omelets.”

1899 A Chicago newspaper runs a story with a headline that reads: “Swell Gothamites Now Dine in Cafes. Members of New York’s Smart Set, with Some Exceptions, Have Adopted a Bohemian Fad Inaugurated in Paris and London. Society People Now Court Publicity and Love to Exhibit Their Marvelous Toilets [clothes] for the Admiration of the Vulgar. It Is Predicted That This Innovation, of Questionable Taste, Will Spread to Chicago.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Taste of a decade: 1940s restaurants

DCcafeteria1943During the war (1941-1945) the creation of 17 million new jobs finally pulls the economy out of the Depression. Millions of married women enter the labor force. The demand for restaurant meals escalates, increasing from a pre-war level of 20 million meals served per day to over 60 million. The combination of increased restaurant patronage with labor shortages, government-ordered price freezes, and rationing of basic foods puts restaurants in a squeeze. With gasoline rationing, many roadside cafes and hamburger stands close.

For a time after the war, rationing continues and wholesale prices stay high but patronage falls off as women leave jobs and return to the kitchen. Trained restaurant personnel are in short supply. Restaurants take advantage of food service methods and materials developed for the armed services. The frozen food industry supplies restaurants with fish, French fries, and baked goods. Boil-in bags of pre-cooked entrees become available. Fast food assembly lines and serving techniques used by the military are transferred to commercial establishments.

Highlights

1940 Based on how many restaurant tablecloths have numbers scribbled on them, executives of the National Restaurant Association reason that mealtime deals are being made and that business is finally bouncing back from the Great Depression.

toffenetti3321941 When the restaurant in the French pavilion at the New York World’s Fair closes, its head Henri Soulé decides he will not return to a Paris occupied by Germans. He and ten waiters remain in New York and open Le Pavillon. Columnist Lucius Beebe declares its cuisine “absolutely faultless,” with prices “of positively Cartier proportions.” – Chicago cafeteria operator Dario Toffenetti, who also had a successful run at the Fair, decides to open a cafeteria in Times Square.

1942 According an official of the National Restaurant Association, nearly one tenth of the 1,183,073 employees and proprietors in the U.S. restaurant business are in California.

1943 Decreeing that patrons will not need to turn in ration coupons for restaurant meals, Washington makes a fateful decision that will fill restaurants to the bursting point. In Chicago, restaurants in the “Loop” experience nearly a 25% increase over the year before, while in New York City patronage doubles and earlier seatings must be devised.

1943 Food imports cease and Chinese restaurants cannot get bamboo shoots. They substitute snow peas, now grown in California and Florida. Because of restrictions, restaurants of all kinds leave cakes unfrosted and substitute honey and molasses for sugar. Instead of beef, lamb, and pork, vegetable plates, fish, omelets, spaghetti, and salad bowls fill menus.

1944 In Reno, Nevada, the White House offers a menu with many fish, seafood, and poultry selections, including lobster, crab legs, frog legs, oysters, fried prawns, brook trout, guinea hen, squab, pheasant, sweetbreads, turkey, duckling, and chicken a la king.

schrafftsrockefellerctr19481946 Like health departments all across the country, NYC begins a crack down on unsanitary conditions in restaurants, a problem that worsened with skeleton crews and extended mealtimes during wartime. An official says that of five inspections he witnessed only a Schrafft’s (shown here: Schrafft’s at Rockefeller Center) could be pronounced “sanitary and clean.”

1947 The Raytheon Corporation, maker of radar systems and components for the military, teams with General Electric to introduce the first microwave oven, the Radarange. Not available for home use initially, it is rented to hotels and restaurants for $5 a day.

1947 After numerous Afro-Americans are refused service in Bullocks department store tea room in Los Angeles, a group sponsored by C.O.R.E. stages a sit-in. Later a supportive white veteran publishes a letter to the editor of a paper declaring that since black soldiers regarded it as their duty to protect him from the “enemy abroad” during wartime, he now feels it is his duty “to protect them from the enemy at home.”

1948 An advice column tells girls to let their date handle all restaurant transactions, including complaints or questions about overcharges. “The girl does not intrude or ask, later, who won the argument,” advises the columnist. – In Chicago, a year-long trade school program in professional cooking enrolls veterans to help relieve the city’s acute chef shortage.

howardjohnsons1949 Howard Johnson’s, the country’s largest restaurant chain, reports a record volume of business for the year. HoJos, which has not yet spread farther west than Fort Wayne IN, plans a move into California.

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Who hasn’t heard of Maxim’s in Paris?

maximslogoThe name has cast a spell over Americans since the 1890s and bits of its odd history have played out in the U.S. The fortunes of the “world’s most famous restaurant” have risen and fallen. It has won high ratings and lost them. It has been the subject and site of operettas, songs, and movies. It has been declared a French national treasure and an altar to haute cuisine, but also a fraud and a tourist trap. Maxim’s name has appeared on perfumes, airplane meals, and franchised outlets, yet even today it resonates.

maxim's1966According to most accounts a waiter named Maxime Gaillard began Maxim’s in 1893. Yet another report calls him maitre d’hôtel Signor Maximo, while another stakes a claim for Georges Everard as founder in 1890. Everyone seems to agree, though, that the early Maxim’s was a late-night glamour magnet for American and English visitors to Paris, liberally supplied with friendly prostitutes. In 1899 it acquired a flamboyant Art Nouveau interior with enough murals, curves, and mirrors for a loopy carnival ride. Its prices were high, which may explain why many turn-of-the-century patrons, though dressed in silks and tuxedos, preferred to watch the action while munching pommes frites, an early specialty of the house.

maxims1967blue1Detractors, such as H. L. Mencken, charged that Maxim’s “gypsy” orchestra was composed of Germans and that the toy balloons floating around were from “the Elite Novelty Co. of Jersey City, U.S.A.” In “Paris à la Carte” (1911), Julian Street, an authority on French food and wines, asserted “I abominate it,” and denounced it as “a brazen fake, over-advertised, ogling, odoriferous; a nightmare of smoke, champagne, and banality.” Debauched merrymakers aside, these were the golden years, before World War I, the era of wine, women, and song on which the Maxim’s legend would be built.

Business was slowed down by war and evidently did not pick up much in the 1920s. By the 1930s Maxim’s was ready for an overhaul. Octave Vaudable acquired it in 1932 (however in other accounts the owner was a British syndicate). After undergoing German WWII occupation followed by service as a British officers’ mess hall, the restaurant resumed regular operation in 1946 under the management of Octave’s son and daughter-in-law. The reopening, according to Colman Andrews (wine and food writer and co-founder of Saveur), “marked the end of the legendary Maxim’s and the beginning of the Maxim’s legend.”

maxim's1896MenuBy 1953 the restaurant had earned 3 stars in the Michelin Guide and was starting on a new course. It had developed a frozen food division which supplied airplane meals and was poised to sell frozen sauces and entrées in select American stores. In another twist, Maxim’s authorized a Chicago franchise which in 1963 opened an exact replica of the original with chefs trained in Paris. In the 1970s Maxim’s began a downward slide in the Kleber and Gault/Millau guidebooks. By 1978 the restaurant was no longer listed in Michelin, but more franchises were popping up in Tokyo, Mexico City, New York, and Palm Springs. About this time, fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who would buy Maxim’s in 1981, obtained a license and began to merchandise candy, perfume, men’s wear, and other goods under that label. Several Maxim’s have come and gone around the world but today the original Paris Maxim’s persists and there are Maxim’s luxury restaurants and hotels in 7 other cities.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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