2012 Hero: Captain John
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2012 Hero: Captain John

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains: the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past 12 months. From December 10 to 19, we’ll unveil the nominees, grouped by category. Vote for your favourites from each batch, every single day! On December 19 and 20 the winners from each category go head-to-head in the final round of voting, and on December 21, we will reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

“Heroic” isn’t the type of adjective normally applied to a person who racks up half a million dollars’ worth of rent and property tax arrears then closes his business when the City shuts off his water, but “Captain” John Letnik, owner of Captain John’s Harbour Boat Restaurant (Captain John’s floating doorstop, as of June), is a special case. He did all that this year, but he’s still great.

At the risk of undermining the man’s heroism: Yes, the restaurant was located inside the Jadran, a rusting, antiquated hulk of a ship that Letnik sailed to Canada from Yugoslavia, his home country, in 1975. Yes, a plate of shrimp on rice with a lemon wedge was $32.95, and, sure, the dinner menu—at least, the online version—was typeset in Comic Sans [PDF]. But despite all that, Captain John has a kind of nobility that demands to be honoured. In a city consumed with the desire to remake its downtown into a steel-and-glass Habitrail for condo-dwelling lawyers and investment bankers, Letnik was a holdout. Where any average person would have given up years ago, he kept his dream alive.

When Captain John’s first opened at the foot of Yonge Street, in 1970 (on a different boat, which later sank), Toronto’s waterfront was a much different place. The railway lands to the northwest were far emptier. Even the CN Tower had yet to be built. The shoreline to the west of Yonge Street was nowhere near as developed as it is today; Harbourfront Centre had yet to be announced. Letnik was, in a sense, a pioneer.

For a while, the captain enjoyed some respectability. Newspaper mentions of the restaurant during its early days are few, but, in January 1972, the Star referred to Captain John’s as “popular,” which is more than could be said of it during its waning years. It even made a cameo in one of the few halfway decent movies to be shot in Toronto during the 1970s.

Eventually, the Jadran became more than a restaurant to Letnik. He started living in a room on the top level of the boat.

But the years weren’t kind to Captain John or his vessel. In its fourth decade of existence, the restaurant became a curiosity and a punchline, relegated to the status of a gaudy tourist trap in a part of the city that Waterfront Toronto is busy trying to turn into a mixed-use condo community. Letnik reportedly put the boat on the market for $1.5 million in 2009, but still hadn’t found any buyers when the City, Waterfront Toronto, and the Toronto Port Authority shut off his water supply and put an end to his business over the summer. Reporters have speculated that officials simply wanted the rusting, fading hulk out of the way of redevelopment.

Captain John’s wasn’t a great culinary destination, it wasn’t cool, and it wasn’t particularly attractive. Even so, it was unique in the city. What’s more, it was harmless, and interesting, and long-lived. And it was one man’s vision.

Without a distinctive personality at its helm, this bit of pre-condo-boom Toronto history would never have survived into the present. Call it idiosyncrasy, or call it inertia. Either way, we owe John Letnik a debt of gratitude for, in his own way, fighting the cynical notion that our city develops the way planners and provincial boards tell it to.

See the other nominees who are Standing Their Ground:

Toronto Ombudsman Fiona Crean

Grace under fire.
  Daniel Dale

Staying professional, even when the mayor couldn’t.
  Alice Moran

Speaking up when she didn’t need to.

  Captain John

Keeping the waterfront interesting, and keeping his dream alive.

Cast Your Ballot