Toronto’s iconic floating restaurant seems like a strange place to spend New Year’s Eve, but an evening aboard Captain John’s reveals a boatload of kitschy delights.
Thirty minutes before midnight John Letnik, better known as Captain John, was showing me his home on the top deck of the floating restaurant he owns. It’s spacious with plush ecru carpeting, pink wallpaper and a Jacuzzi tub that can easily fit two people. He’s a popular man judging by the dozens of Christmas and birthday cards he received this year. His favourite, of course, is the Father’s Day card from his daughter in Seattle. Not only have I seen the wizard behind the curtain, I’m looking at his tub and collection of greeting cards.
Torontonians know all about Captain John’s, the seafood restaurant located on a ship that’s been docked at the quiet foot of Yonge St. for the past 35 years but few have dined there let alone stepped inside. Even the majority of food writers I know have never been.
Still, they’ve heard enough through the grapevine on why not to eat there: it’s a tourist trap; the food is terrible; it’s always empty; it’s depressing. What began as a joke — ringing in the New Year at what online reviewers say is one of the city’s worst restaurants — became reality at the urging of curious coworkers. As a food writer and someone who has been living in Toronto all his life I had check it out for myself.
It’s hard not to look like a tourist on this floating time capsule rife with ‘70s kitsch at every corner: bronze figurines, a tank with fake lobsters in a corner and a bust of Letnik guarding the dining room (not to mention the carpeted washrooms). The dimly lit entrance hallway is covered with hundreds of framed letters, awards, and faded photographs providing a timeline of the Captain’s achievements like feeding the homeless or hosting charity dinners since he opened his first ship-turned-restaurant on the MS Normac in 1970. It’s like a cruise ship from decades past sailed into a wormhole and ended up stranded in modern day Toronto.
I boarded the ship around 6:30p.m. (my enthusiastic coworkers, friends and family all conveniently had plans that night) while the staff and band were setting up in the banquet hall. A handful of couples were there for regular dinner service in the main dining room downstairs. Most were older, and appeared to be regulars or staying at the adjacent Westin hotel. There was one young couple, looking like they were plucked out of an Urban Outfitters, excessively photographing their dinner with a fascination similar to mine.
Back upstairs around 60 or 70 revelers begin trickling into the party space, which is officially called the Dubrovnik Room and can seat 250 guests. Like the regular diners, it’s mostly a middle-aged contingent in business suits and sparkly dresses.
I’m seated at Table One along with three affable ladies. Kathy is a career counselor and despite being a fourth-generation Torontonian she has never been to Captain John’s. She thought it was a place for tourists but she’s here tonight to see her friend’s band perform. (In a nutshell the band’s leader, Spider Jones, grew up in Detroit’s inner-city, became a Canadian boxing champ and is now a motivational speaker/front man of a tribute Motown and R&B band). She brought along her beautiful roommate Tara and her charming former coworker Ann. Like Kathy, it’s Ann’s first time on board. Tara, however, had been here for lunch six years ago. The other tables had mix of couples and grandparents with the occasional 30-something tossed in.
Our table was far from the band but close to the buffet spread at the back. A church basement buffet is the best way to describe the feast before us: deviled eggs, cold cuts, roasted potatoes, crudités, lasagna, and what I believe are the biggest platters of coleslaw and pasta salad the city has ever seen. The seafood options included baked salmon and crab legs and lobsters on ice. The dessert table kept up the unintentional ‘70s theme with Nanaimo bars, cherry cheesecake, carrot cake with raisins and fruit cocktails in champagne coupes. As for the quality of the meal, Ann the New Brunswick native liked the lobsters: moist and slightly small in size (too big and the lobster loses its flavour, she says). I tried a bit of everything and didn’t get sick. It was all I could hope for.
“Can’t you just picture someone hosting a Scarface-themed party here?” squealed Tara, gesturing to the mirrored columns, brass railings and golden glow radiating from the light fixtures. “It’s a shame more people don’t come here.” When the band started a medley of Supremes hits, Kathy declared we were on the Love Boat. Ann and I shared the dance floor when we heard the sweet, sweet lyrics of a Barry White song.
By 10p.m. people got restless and began to explore the ship on their own. Ann went back on land to get a coffee (“It’s like being on a nice cruise, except you’re not stranded at sea,” she says). Kathy and Tara disappeared down a staircase. Smokers relaxed on the deck and stared out to the pitch-black waters on this unseasonably warm night. The other guests kept me busy thinking I was the boat’s party photographer (I obliged).
All this time 73-year-old Captain John had been keeping a low profile, staying close to the kitchen in the back carrying trays of food (he’s very proud of his Manhattan chowder), checking on the status of the cash bar and washing dishes. I introduced myself to him after getting a second helping of carrot cake and we headed to the now empty dining room to chat.
Captain John, born John Letnik in the former Yugoslavian province of Slovenia, fled to Canada in the ‘50s as a teenage refugee and found a dishwashing job at an Etobicoke country club where he later became the chef. In 1961, he opened a restaurant called Pop In at Dundas and McCaul and ran it for seven years. “How I got the idea for [Captain John’s] was that in ’66 I went back to Europe to visit my family and I took a boat from New York to France. I decided I wanted a restaurant to be different and that’s how it started.”
Three years later Letnik acquired the SS Normac, which previously served as a tugboat, fireboat and ferry, and sailed it 350 miles to Toronto from Wallaceburg (a small town near the southwestern tip of Ontario). On Aug. 8, 1970, the restaurant opened at the foot of Yonge St. Five years later a second boat was purchased, this time from the Yugoslavian government. Letnik and a crew of 16 sailed the 296-foot, former luxury liner named MS Jadran across the Atlantic to Toronto where it served as a sister venue to the Normac. In 1981, a city-operated ferry crashed into the SS Normac putting it out of commission and starting a long legal battle between Letnik and city hall. “I lost everything,” he remembers. “But good thing no one got hurt.” The Jadran became the Captain John’s we know today.
The ship was put up on the market in 2009 and currently it is still on sale for $1.5 million, about the price he originally paid. “Don’t get me wrong, I love doing what I do. It’s my life but it’s getting hard after 41 years. The ship needs new blood,” he says. “I’d love to see the ship continue but it’s my time to sit back. Maybe you can buy it!” Interested buyers take note: the boat still floats but it can only move with help from a tugboat.
He invites me to the top level where he built himself a home. It’s one big room that maintains the retro aesthetic. History books are neatly lined on a shelf, more nautical knick-knacks are stored in cabinets, it’s all very neat and orderly like a captain’s quarters should be. If he does sell the boat, he says he’d like to continue living here but he also has a property in Scarborough if need be.
We make our way back to the party where I briefly conversed in Cantonese with Fan, the resident chef for more than 20 years, and Letnik joined the band at the stage for the countdown. Shortly after “Auld Lang Syne” was sung, most were ready to leave after being on the boat for five hours. Some struck around to dance while I continued to take more unofficial party pics for couples. Ann, Kathy and Tara were long gone when I returned to the table.
It won’t be till 4a.m. when Letnik expects to be done cleaning and he can retire upstairs — before getting up again hours later to help prepare brunch. I bid the captain goodbye as he took photos with parting guests and I stepped back into the 21st century. It’s not the best restaurant but it’s certainly one of the most memorable. Despite the negative reviews and less than stellar reputation, Letnik somehow manages to keep the place afloat for another year. He’s getting tired and hopefully with this being the third year his business is up for grabs, this will be the year his ship finally comes.