The rise and agonisingly protracted fall of Captain John’s Harbour Boat Restaurant

It often works out that a pioneer ends up being a victim of their own success. They ride high for a while, but then they get complacent and fall behind the times, as what was once an astounding novelty ends up being made obsolete. So it was with Captain John and his Harbour Boat Restaurant, in Toronto, Canada.

When it opened in the early 1970s, it quickly became a local sensation. It boasted having Bob Hope and the Village People as one-time customers, though sadly not at the same time. But it also kicked off a process of gentrification on Toronto’s waterfront that the good Captain never seemed to even bother challenging or adapting to, and it would eventually claim the life of the establishment that had started it all. The operative word here being “eventually”.

 

It all began with John Letnik, a refugee from what was then known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1956 he escaped Slovenia into Austria, and after that got to Germany. A year later, he made it all the way to Canada. Upon his arrival he started work at a country club, and worked his way up to becoming its main chef. In 1961, he opened a place called the Pop Inn which he ran until 1968.

It was around about the late 60s when he had his brainwave. He was taking a brief trip back to Europe via ship to visit relatives, and as he stared out at the sea, the thought occurred to him to establish a restaurant on a boat. Not just the kind of thing you’d expect on a cruise ship, but rather a whole vessel dedicated to being a restaurant, to be moored along the Toronto waterfront.

That waterfront was on Lake Ontario, an inland body of water so vast that from any point in the lakeshore, it looks to the observer to just be like a sea – in fact, if you were to sail south far enough from the northern side you’d soon find yourself at the US state of New York (although it’s best not to do this without the correct paperwork, unless you enjoy being beaten up by grim-faced men wearing sunglasses).

Being able to dine in a floating restaurant in such an unusual place, and one that happened to have zero entertainment areas of any kind, would be a major talking point. And so, in 1970, he purchased the MS Normac.

It was a ship that was built in 1902, and at one point had been used by the Detroit Fire Department. Immediately prior to Letnik buying it, it had been operating as a ferry. It was promptly moored at 1 Queens Quay West, and was named Captain John’s Harbour Restaurant. As a result of it opening, what had previously only been a port for industrial use would in time turn into a tourist attraction, and become a residential area to boot. This was the beginning of what is now called Harbourfront.

 

In 1975, the restaurant expanded when Letnik bought a larger ship called the Jadran. This he got from the government of the very place he’d escaped from, the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. The Jadran was a luxury cruise ship built in a city called Split, in what is now Croatia. It was moored next to the Normac, and as a result Captain John’s now offered a ballroom and other facilities to host wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs… and a bikini contest held by a local radio station.

By the late 70s, Captain John was doing pretty well for himself. But as I mentioned at the start of this, while the rest of Harbourfront would move on and evolve, he stayed still. The Harbour Restaurant may have sparked off the massive redevelopment of the area that was now just beginning, but the venue itself was rapidly approaching the moment where it started to fall behind. To help explain this, we need to take a look at the local perception of it as it changed over the years.

According to reports from Toronto residents who went there at the time, it seems that throughout the 70s and 80s people ate at Captain John’s for two things. First, the strange experience of eating and drinking on a boat moored at an industrial lakefront when there was frig-all else to do in that location. Second, it happened to be open on every single day of the year (including Christmas Day) and in addition to that, it was also very, very cheap. Couples often went there on dates, and they could pay for two platters costing only one Canadian dollar each.

However, those platters weren’t that appetizing. In fact the food was apparently always pretty rubbish, but of the kind that would have passed muster back in the 60s and 70s before people knew better. As Canadian palates developed, the fare on offer turned into a distant second attraction compared to being a really, really cheap place to go on a date in an otherwise socially dead kind of place, and for any tourists visiting Toronto – hey! There’s a restaurant on that boat! How about that. (Also, the booze was reportedly pretty good.)

Maybe it might have been possible for Captain John to move with the times, but the Captain believed very much in the old saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, even when things do break, and then become extremely broken, and even more broken after that”.

 

By the 90s, modern-day Habourfront was coming into existence, following the North American boom years of the 80s. Captain John’s was now increasingly out of step with everything around it. Newer establishments were popping up, offering vastly superior food amongst environments that were significantly more welcoming and all-round pleasant to be in. Meanwhile, Captain John’s was not a place particularly conducive to eating or drinking anything anymore. While some of these photos may suggest otherwise, there’s something that constantly comes up in reports on the restaurant from the 90s onwards – complaints about a certain kind of grimy, stinking dankness. As the years had rolled on, the ship had been falling into a state of disrepair.

Hang on… didn’t I say there were two ships? Well, that wasn’t the case by this point. I’m going to wind events back a little, so I can describe the exact point where everything really started to go wrong.

On June 2 1981, the Normac, the original boat that housed Captain John’s, was struck by a ferry called the Trillium. A mechanical failure was to blame – as the Trillium was docking, the electronic device that was meant to slow down the engine if a potential crash was detected failed to work. Luckily it happened at low speed, and no one was harmed, with everyone aboard both vessels being safely evacuated. While the damage made to the Normac was repaired, two weeks later on June 16, the Normac abruptly sank. Some crucial damage had gone unidentified, and un-fixed.

This was the start of a long, long series of multiple legal battles between John Letnik and the city of Toronto – and this first one wouldn’t come to an end until the conclusion of the decade. Initially the courts found in favour of the city council, partially because Letnik had apparently not maintained the Normac since buying it. However, that decision was overturned on appeal. Letnik got damages awarded to him, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the loss of the boat, not to mention there were huge legal fees on top of that.

And while all that was going on, the Toronto Harbour Commission ordered Letnik to raise the Normac from the lakebed. Letnik complied, and that sent him another $100,000 into the red. After being rescued from the briney depths, it was fixed up and sold on. It ended up as a floating restaurant elsewhere – going to Port Dahousie in Ontario to become the Riverboat Mexican Grill. The Jadran, now the single boat containing Captain John’s business, was not to be as fortunate.

 

Just as one major legal battle had been won – albeit as something of a Pyrrhic victory – another began, this time with his ex-common-law wife. In 1992 she began legal proceedings against Letnik, claiming a half-share of the restaurant. This battle went up into the 21st Century. As time wore on, some surely must have wondered why she continued to feel that this was worth it, considering that Captain John’s was gradually decaying into fishy rust. In 2002 the courts ruled in favour of his wife, and Letnik filed for bankruptcy protection.

By that year, Letnik owed over 5 million dollars to various creditors, 3 million of which were to unsecured creditors. Secured creditors are generally major companies or banks. Unsecured creditors can include suppliers to a business – such as the catering services delivering all those prawn cocktails to the kitchen – and contractors, presumably in this case those who raised the Normac. While the bankruptcy protection did get roughly 4 million dollars shaved off his bills, Captain John’s staff was reduced to ten employees from the dozens who previously worked there. And he wasn’t going to be repaying anyone any time soon.

As the 2000s continued, the place that created Harbourfront wasn’t really generating much revenue. It had been quite some time since anyone but tourists had wanted to eat on board what many saw as a clapped out old fishbucket, and the person behind a new development of luxury condos was unhappy with the fact that his property overlooked an immovable eyesore. And then it became apparent to the city that Letnik had not been paying property tax on the ship, and another round of legal shenanigans began.

In 2007 he appealed this, arguing that as it was a ship, it wasn’t a “structure” under property tax law. The courts thought that this was bollocks. Despite an appeal against that decision, they remained steadfast, and those bills kept mounting. The following year, health officials temporarily closed the restaurant upon finding some serious problems with the hygiene and general safety aboard the ship. Among the 11 infractions were “Operator fail to maintain premises free of sewage back-up” and “Operator fail to ensure food is not contaminated/adulterated”. John Letnik got an additional $2160 added to those bills.

In 2009, a desperate Letnik decided to sell Captain John’s. He put it up for 1.5 million dollars – there were no takers. He then reduced the price to 1.25 million dollars. There continued to be no takers.

In June 2012, Captain John’s was still somehow struggling on, despite only having a tiny amount of employees, being a massive load of dodgy haddock-smelling metal, owing all sorts of people grand sums of money, and having only misguided tourists and even more misguided wedding parties as customers. It was at this point the Toronto Port Authority decided that they were fed up of this decades-long farce, and realised that they had to do something about it.

 

The Authority cancelled the lease for the slip where the Jadran was moored. There was over $500,000 owed in this regard; not just for back taxes, but also rent and basic utilities. The city shut off the boat’s water supply, and those health officials returned to close the restaurant, this time for good. This decision was made upon the grounds that without water, you couldn’t wash anything.

The Port Authority ordered Letnik to remove the ship’s gangplank and every sign identifying it as a restaurant. They were also able to remove the ship’s engine to prevent it from being moved elsewhere until all bills were paid, though the mechanical innards of the Jadran were possibly in such a state at this point that it may not have been able to sail off under its own steam anymore. The ship rested in a bed of mud while the legal issues raged on.

In September 2013, the city decided to seize the vessel. Letnik said he would go down with his ship like any good captain, claiming he would chain himself to it – but it seems he was persuaded otherwise. Having gained control of the ship at last, the Port Authority gave the deadline of August 22, 2014 for the vessel to be taken away and scrapped, and accepted bids from ship breakers. James Sbrolla of CleanTech Capital Inc. won the bid. In a peculiar little detail, the bid was registered via his brother’s company – The North American Seafood Exchange – due to logistical reasons.

According to a contemporary Toronto Star report, Sbrolla is an investor in clean energy and recycling companies. Unknown to anyone at the time, least of all Sbrolla himself, he was about to enter a world of pain in his brief dalliance with Captain John’s / the Jadran. However, it would only drag on for about a year for him, compared to the aeons that the council and the Port Authority had experienced.

The hydro-electric link that fed electricity to the thing posed the main problem; due to the weird way it was all set up, disconnecting it was so extremely dangerous that it would have required both residents and businesses in the area to have their power temporarily switched to other power sources. At the same time, this method of disconnection needed temperatures of under 24 degrees centigrade to carry out. (I have not been able to work out why.)

Another difficulty was in finding a new berth (or mooring location) for the ship, so that the work of actually breaking the ship apart and retrieving anything salvageable could be carried out. Sbrolla wanted to move the Jadran to a private slip a few blocks away so this could happen – however, that required council approval, and they were uncertain about the plan, for reasons that are unclear.

Sbrolla then proposed that the ship just be broken up at its current resting place, and the council turned that down as well. This latter decision was presumably because Captain John’s was located in an place which now housed many tourist attractions and residential apartments, and was also right next to a stretch of land which holidaymakers walked up and down every day. The Port Authority would have have likely been concerned about smashing something up so close to all that which happened to contain large amounts of asbestos.

Sbrolla had paid $33,501 for his bid – but with the deadline long gone by October 2014, the Port Authority decided to pay Sbrolla back his money and start again. A date was pencilled in for the spring of 2015 to find a new buyer.

 

Finally, on May 11 2015, the Federal Court allowed the Marine Recycling Coporation to take ownership of the Jadran. It was to be towed to their junkyard facility in the city of Port Colborne at Lake Erie, which could be reached via the Welland Canal. Only now was the whole affair winding down to its conclusion, although at this point the Port Authority must have been kicking themselves for not being a bit quicker off the mark. Due to a worldwide slump in metal prices, roughly $200,000 had been knocked off the total value of the scrap that could be got out of the ship. Still, they along with Waterfront Toronto and that condo developer I mentioned about ten paragraphs ago paid an undisclosed fee for its overdue removal. (It is rumoured that the Jadran’s final journey cost half a million dollars. If the ship had sunk at any point, the cost would have risen to a full one million. Luckily – for once – that didn’t happen.)

Seventeen days later – the blink of an eye in comparison to the rest of this saga – on May 28th, the impossible finally happened and the ship was towed away. Hundreds of people gathered to see its departure. A local news channel broadcast the event live, and a band played music during the send-off. John Letnik, the man who had made the first step of changing Harbourfront into the thriving location it was now, and the man who had caused so much grief for the city council and the Port Authority, was invited to the ceremony as a kind of “no hard feelings” gesture. He was presented with a special gift – a photo of himself, taken in the 1970s in front of the Normac, which showed him dressed in a full captain’s uniform.

There was a speech from Harbourmaster Angus Armstrong and Councillor Norm Kelly, thanking him for “a mission well-served and not soon forgotten”. He was also allowed to stay on board the Jadran during its final voyage. Once the time came, he waved a tearful farewell to the cheering crowd, and the TV news cameras filmed him as the huge rusting hulk he stood on slowly disappeared over the horizon. It was a surprisingly sweet ending to an agonising, decades long round of legal battles.

It was also surprising how Letnik appeared to be in such relatively good spirits, considering that the day before it was towed he received a letter from the city council. It was a reminder that he still owed $814,656.12 in back taxes.

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