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.
Letnik’s quest to become a restaurateur is the quintessential immigrant success story. In 1957, then 17 years old, he left his family behind in the former Yugoslavia for a better life in Toronto. He worked as a dishwasher at an Etobicoke golf club (and lived there, too), and was eventually promoted to sous chef. After saving enough money, he brought his girlfriend over; they married in 1959 (and later divorced). Two years later, Letnik opened his first eatery: Pop-In Restaurant at Dundas West and McCaul, where he charged 45 cents for pork chops and fried potatoes.
Letnik hatched the idea for a local floating restaurant in 1966, while eating on a ship bound for France. Thinking that it would be a novel concept for Toronto, he sold Pop-In and bought the MS Normac for $30,000 in 1969. The 120-foot, 405-ton boat originally came from Detroit, and had seen better days. But Letnik soon transformed it into a five-star restaurant, giving people a reason to venture down to the bottom of Yonge.
The harbour was a desolate part of town in the early ’70s. On the ship’s west side, where the Westin Harbour Castle currently stands, was a parking lot. On the other side was a shipping warehouse owned by the Toronto Star, which used to store its papers there. The Star owned the surrounding land and charged the captain $1,000 per month for use of the sidewalk, with long-term leases of five to 10 years. He also paid the Port Authority a docking fee. Back then, a white-fish dinner cost $3.47; a lobster feast would set you back less than $10.
Given the amount of customer traffic then, Letnik’s mid-’70s expansion strategy made perfect sense. With the ability to seat an additional 300 guests, the Jadran was intended to catapult Captain John’s to a new level of luxury. A Toronto Star article from November, 1975, anticipates the ship’s arrival in local waters: “[Letnik] plans to remove the 200 tourist [economy] class cabins and create a convention centre which will include another dining-room and a gift shop.”
“In the ’70s and ’80s, there were a lot of Christmas parties, weddings, company functions, and office parties here,” Letnik recalls. “Now companies barely spend any money because they can’t write it off anymore. Around November and December, we were booked up every day. From May through September, we had more American tourists than Canadians. It was a high-end restaurant. People dressed up. It’s a lot of good memories from those days.” People like then-premier Bill Davis, Brian Mulroney, and Bob Hope could be found in the boat’s dining rooms.
The parties often went on until the sun came up, which led to the Captain building his own home on the top of the boat in the early ’80s, in order to eliminate his daily commute to and from work. “I lived for my business. By the time I finished a wedding at seven o’clock in the morning, I was too tired to get in a car,” he says. “It was more convenient for me to live here. I enjoy being with my business.”
As the ’90s rolled in, the lavish parties and functions seemed to disappear. The number of American tourists sharply declined as well. A recession hit North America; in an effort to fill those dining tables, Letnik started dealing with tour companies in Montreal that would bring in French tourists to eat on the ship. (Not surprisingly, it’s also traditionally been a big hit with Japanese tourists, who come from a country that loves its novelty restaurants.) Guests staying at downtown hotels like the nearby Royal York and the Delta Chelsea kept the ship going, along with a handful of longtime customers. The menu hasn’t changed much since day one—only a few pasta and vegetarian dishes have been added. By the start of the new millennium, Captain John’s days as a high-end restaurant were clearly over: online reviewers called the food abysmal, overcooked, and overpriced. The words “tourist trap” appeared often.
Still, sporadic private events took place on board. There was the annual New Year’s Eve bash; local artist Tyler Clark Burke held hipster dance parties and mixers aboard the ship until 2008; and Murder Mystery Toronto performed its weekly CodFather dinner-theatre show there in 2009. Letnik also hosted occasional dinners for the city’s homeless population.
Beneath the dining rooms are two additional floors, where the original cabins have been gutted. Accessible only by a flight of steep stairs, it’s where Letnik planned on building either a convention space or a series of hotel rooms in the late ’80s and early ’90s: That idea was another victim of the recession. It’s a cavernous space, pitch black and below the water line. Even though temperatures are nearing 40°C outside, the air is damp and chilly, with the faint scent of seawater. Letnik leads the way with a flashlight, pointing out every bump and step that could be tripped over. Along the walls are piles of old plastic and metal furniture, torn Captain John banners promoting lunch specials, and yellow caution tape fencing off more rusted equipment.
With revenue dropping, Letnik first put the ship and the business on the market five years ago; the price tag was $1.25 million, which he hoped would allow him to retire and pass on the Captain John’s legacy. There have been no serious offers.
“I’d like to see new blood come in, a younger version of me from 40 years ago,” he says. “I’d like to see the boat continue as a restaurant and banquet facility. It needs a facelift from the inside and outside.”
While Letnik wants to see the boat float on, others simply want the boat gone.
The ship has become a divisive landmark. Some call it an eyesore, while others perceive it as a quirky relic. Letnik stopped paying property taxes to the Toronto Port Authority, arguing that since his boat is on water, he does not own any land.
“All of the sudden they just wanted to get rid of me,” he explains. “I had a problem with the realty [property] taxes and I’m behind on rent right now, which I stopped paying some time ago. I stopped paying realty taxes four years ago, when I took them to court.
“In ’69-’70, I received a realty bill that was less than $1,000 a year. Now it’s $40,000 a year plus rent, and I don’t have any realty. They gave me a break a few times, but now, all of a sudden, they shut the water off. It’s an easy way for them to shut me down.”
The Toronto Star gave up ownership of the land surrounding the ship when it moved its printing operations out to Vaughan in 1997, closing down the warehouse that was situated beside the ship. (It’s now a parking lot and future condo site.) Waterfront Toronto, a task force created in 1999 to redevelop the area, took over the property and turned Letnik’s long-term lease into a month-to-month arrangement. Part of the long-term waterfront revitalization plan is to turn the base of Yonge Street into a public park, with a pier for visiting ships.
Michelle Noble, director of communications for Waterfront Toronto, says the shutdown is the result of failed negotiations: “He owes the city more than $500,000 in taxes. He also owes Waterfront Toronto money because we own the land where the boat is. He also owes the Toronto Port Authority a lot of money. We’ve been working with him for years to try to work something out for payment.” Ward 28 councillor Pam McConnell adds, “I think we’ve been more than fair, but at some point you just have to end it. I know he’s been there for 40 years, but everyone has to pay their taxes.”
Another few days pass. No one has reached out to Letnik about saving the Toronto landmark. There have been a few interested bidders for the business and boat, but buyers are hesitant to spend millions for a lease that could be terminated at the end of every month. Letnik pulls out a letter he sent to the Port Authorities, the waterfront, and the mayor, as well as councillor Doug Ford and Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion. In it, he pleads for someone to abolish the short-term lease deal, so he can attract a buyer who’ll invest the money needed to renovate the ship. The only response he received was from councillor Ford, who said that the issue is out of his jurisdiction. Even as Letnik prepares to clear out, the boat’s fate is in bureaucratic and legal limbo. Only one thing is certain: It won’t be immediately tugged away or taken apart for scrap.
“I’m still hoping that something may come out of this,” says Letnik. “Get someone to buy it and take it over, so I can settle my obligations and walk off the gang-plank with pride.”
Related reading: The slow disappearance of cheeseball Toronto