The history of Captain John's seafood restaurant in Toronto
The M. V. Jadran, where Captain John's Seafood Restaurant was located, occupied a prime location on Toronto's waterfront for many years.
When the business venture failed, there was a search to find a new owner, but it was unsuccessful due to the taxes owed and the leasing difficulties imposed by the city.
After the water supply to the ship was terminated, the restaurant closed, and in the ensuing years it became an empty rusting hulk.
I kept hoping that someone would eventually purchase the ship and restore it, as having a floating restaurant on the city's shoreline was a valuable asset for both Torontonians and tourists. However, it was not to be.
It was John Lenik who brought the M. V. Jadran to Toronto. Letnik escaped Communist Yugoslavia when he was 15 years old, arriving in Canada in 1957.
He worked hard and eventually opened a restaurant named "Pop-In" at Dundas and McCaul Streets. Due to his success, he finally purchased the building where the eatery was located.
On a trip to Yugoslavia to visit his family, he sailed from New York aboard the S.S. France. On this trip, he fell in love with dining on the high seas and dreamt of opening a floating restaurant in Toronto.
On his return to Toronto, following a two-year search, in 1969 Letnik bought the M.V. Normac. It was a small vessel, launched in 1902 in Port Huron, Michigan. It had been used for various purposes, including a Detroit fire boat and also a Tobermory ferry.
Letnik sailed it to Toronto under its own steam and moored it at the foot of Yonge Street (1 Queens Quay). He opened his restaurant aboard it in August 1970. Its hull was painted flaming red and the superstructure was white.
It was an attractive sight, moored alongside Queens Quay, in a decade when the city's waterfront was mainly industrial. The Normac was one of the few signs of life at night in an area that otherwise was desolate.
I retain fond memories of the vessel, as in the 1970s, during the summer months, Capt. John's served an all-you-can-eat lobster buffet on the top deck of the Normac. Lobster—ice cold beer—and a harbour view—heaven!
Letnik expanded his business when he purchased the MV (Merchant Vessel) Jadran in 1975. The ship had been launched in 1957 in Pula, Yugoslavia (now Croatia).
As a luxury cruise ship, it sailed the Mediterranean Sea, docking at ports along the Aegean and Adriatic Seas, as well as the Black Sea. After Letnik became its owner, he embarked on a 16-day trip to sail it from Yugoslavia to Toronto.
Mooring it on Queens Quay, on the port side of the Normac, he commenced business in May 1976. As well as a public restaurant, the ship offered facilities for private parties, weddings, banquets and bar mitzvahs.
In 1981, the Normac was rammed by the Toronto Ferry the Trillium, when it lost power. The hull of the Normac was punctured below the water line. The incident happened when the ship was fully occupied by diners, but no one was injured.
A patch was placed over the hole, but it did not seal the opening properly and a week later the boat sank. The insurance money was insufficient to re-float and restore the vessel, so Letnik was forced to sell it.
It was towed to Cleveland, Ohio, where once more it became a seafood restaurant named Captain John's. In 1995, it was taken to Port Dalhousie, Ontario, and renamed The Riverboat. Later, it was called Tokyo Joe's, but on December 28, 2011 it was gutted by fire.
With the loss of the Normac, Capt. John required more space. He opened the floor above the main deck of the Jadran to diners, and the second-floor deck, named the Dubrovnik Room, was employed for larger functions.
However, in the year ahead, business deteriorated, and debts increased due to his battles with the city over taxes. Finally, the ship's water supply was cut. The back taxes and utility bills were said to be about $740,000 and without water, Capt. John's Restaurant closed.
Losing the ship was a great loss to the city of Toronto.
Doug Taylor was a teacher, historian, author and artist who wrote extensively about Toronto history on tayloronhistory.com. This article first appeared on his site on October 8, 2015 and has been republished here with the permission of his estate. The article has been modified slightly.
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