The floating restaurant at the foot of Yonge Street was once a place where celebrities and politicians gathered. Forty years and a half-million dollars in back taxes later, it looks like John Letnik’s voyage is over.
Hanging precariously off the very top level of the MS Jadran—better known as Captain John’s Harbour Boat Restaurant—are eight weathered lifeboats. Their white paint has grayed and chipped like the bark of an old silver birch. Looking up, you can see torn, misshapen flags that flutter haphazardly in the hot summer breeze, giving the illusion of swarms of moths with broken wings. Nearby is the cabin where “Captain” John Letnik has been living for the past 30 years.
Letnik’s home is decorated in an ’80s style reminiscent of The Golden Girls’ set. There’s pink, faux-wood wallpaper. Plush beige carpet covers even the bathroom, where he has a Jacuzzi tub big enough for two. Though it’s a cloudless afternoon, the Captain turns the lights on while layers of curtains—sheer white and a thicker pink that matches the walls—block out the sunlight. There’s a mirrored wall behind the Jacuzzi, as well as a mirrored ceiling above the dining table that’s large enough to deflect the light onto a decades-old family portrait of a raven-haired Letnik with his brother, mother, and sisters in his native Slovenia. According to his bookshelf, he’s big on history, European travel, and literary classics. The Captain has his daughter’s wedding portrait on the wall, sitting above a little trolley of spirits.
It’s mid-July, two weeks since the city shut down Letnik’s restaurant, which has been docked at the foot of Yonge Street for the past 42 years. Citing owed back taxes that exceed $500,000, the city has shut off the water supply to both the restaurant and his upstairs home. The port authority has detained the ship, meaning it cannot leave the harbour. On June 26, Waterfront Toronto, the group that owns the land where the neon red Captain John’s sign once hummed so brightly, gave him a month to clear out.
With just 10 days left before the deadline, and nowhere else to go, Letnik continues to live here alone. On this day, two of his friends have come in to help pack the glassware, plates, and cutlery on the dozens of tables throughout the ship’s three dining rooms, after sharing some memories over coffee and blueberry cake. “I only have a week and a half, so I have to prepare myself. I haven’t touched my apartment yet,” Letnik says. “Maybe I’ll put everything on the lifeboat and go sailing.”
He’d need more than one lifeboat to carry everything away. Almost every wall is covered in framed newspaper clippings, plaques, letters, and photographs of a younger Letnik during the ship’s heyday in the ’70s and ’80s. There’s a bust of him in the main dining room, and several empty bottles of Captain John’s “Special Selection” red and white Ontario wines on a shelf in the party room marked by a small “Poop Deck” sign on the entryway.
THE GRID PODCAST: What’s a captain without a ship to command? On the latest episode of The Grid Podcast, writer Karon Liu talks with David Topping about the end of Captain John’s, and what it means for the man who’s given his life to it, John Letnik. Listen here.
Since the closure, Letnik has been forced to use lots of bottled water while getting ready in the morning, because the taps don’t work. He goes to friends’ houses to bathe.
“I’ll wash myself in the lake every morning and take a dip,” he jokes with the same wide smile found in those newspaper clippings. Save for the thinning grey hair, the 73-year-old’s appearance hasn’t changed much since he opened Captain John’s on Aug. 8, 1970.
That’s when the city was formally introduced to the Captain, who arrived here from the former Yugoslavia with just two dollars to his name. He loved the city and was determined to create a destination restaurant for locals and tourists at a time when such landmarks were lacking. Letnik had a peculiar notion: buy a decommissioned 70-year-old fireboat, sail it from Owen Sound to Toronto, and turn it into a fine-dining seafood restaurant at the foot of Yonge Street. Outside, the ship was given a new coat of white paint and a fire-engine red hull. Inside, waiters wore royal-blue, double-breasted captains’ jackets and served guests dressed for a night on the town. The floating restaurant was a shiny plaything on the Toronto night-life scene, and proved incredibly popular.
But soon it came crashing down. Literally. In 1981, a city ferry collided into the ship, sending it to the depths of Lake Ontario. Letnik moved his restaurant business to a second, larger boat he had purchased in 1975, the MS Jadran. He planned to turn it into a hotel, but never had enough money to make that happen.
Over the past 20 years, business has dwindled and the place has fallen into disrepair, becoming known for bad food and unsanitary conditions—a punchline for jokes about kitschy Toronto. Letnik has run out of options. But like any captain worth his salt, he’s staying on this sinking ship as long as he can.
Next page: How Captain John’s went from celeb hotspot to widely panned “tourist trap”