Local brunch restaurant owner reflects on over 37 years of business in Victoria
You may know John’s Place for its long line, exposure on the Canadian television series You Gotta Eat Here, or the almost five-star review on Google. You may have even gone to John’s Place, where you’ll have eaten in the old-school red booths, surrounded by walls cluttered with paintings by local artists, vintage framed photos, and posters showcasing noble personalities with swirly black signatures in the corner.
Stories and memories live all throughout this local Victoria restaurant, making you wonder: how did it all begin?
In the early 80s, John Cantin worked nights flipping patties at a burger joint in downtown Victoria called Little Sammy’s Fatburger. The young chef had graduated from Sinclair Culinary School in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario and had worked in several different kitchens internationally.
During his early days in school as a chef, he was chosen to represent the Canadian team twice in the Culinary Olympics, which allowed him to travel to Frankfurt and Jerusalem. After working at Little Sammy’s for over a year, John was ready to move on from his daily routine.
“I didn’t do everything I had to do to cook burgers,” John explains in an interview with the Martlet.
From then on, every day on his way to work down Pandora Street, John would notice a specific building. It was a 130-year-old heritage building, all boarded up, and John would find himself trying to see past the papered windows. Eventually his curiosity got the better of him and he called up his realtor friend to see inside.
Immediately in love with the 25-foot ceilings and wooden floors, John asked if the building could be leased, and sure enough, the building had John’s name on it before he could say it aloud.
Needing help and money, and a lot of it, John turned to his friend Howie Siegel, who had opened Pagliacci’s five years before. According to John’s son, Norm Cantin, when Siegel was helping John open his own restaurant, he said, “Whatever you call it John, I’m just going to say it’s John’s Place.”
John’s Place opened its doors in October 1984. At the age of 28, John was eager to introduce what he noticed every city had but Victoria was missing: a diner-style restaurant.
In those early days it was a slow start. John lived upstairs in an office on a futon, and his days were devoted to the restaurant.
“He was literally keeping the place up and running by himself,” Norm says.
That first year, John hired staff who now see it as their home. Liz and Deborah have worked at John’s Place for 37 years. “We were raised in Johnville,” Deborah jokes. “We’re the lifers,” adds Liz.
Ten years after opening, John began renovations. He enhanced the restaurant’s identity by adding pine boards to showcase signed photographs of celebrities that have come and gone throughout the years.
“It had no character, I mean other than the magical room. This is a magical room, look at the size of it,” says Deborah, gesturing to the main dining area.
“When anybody ever came to John’s, they always felt like they were going to the rec room that they lived in — back in the old days, in the basement — that you put old pictures up everywhere,” says John.
The walls of John’s Place are now clustered with photos and other memorabilia, which always have a story. The largest piece of art in John’s Place is the memorial for his father. John had a local artist paint him in Tiger Stadium, a setting with personal meaning from his childhood. “[My dad] never got to meet my kids, so I put the kids on his lap.”
John’s Place today
Later this year John’s Place will celebrate its 38th anniversary. John has been manager of his restaurant, a world traveler, husband of 17 years, and father to two kids. Norm began managing the restaurant three years ago.
These days, John watches over the cooks, manages reviews, and comes in once a week to create the weekend’s specials from fresh foods bought at the Root Cellar. The specials are unique entrées inspired by a mix of John’s travels, the local ingredients, and home-made catering. The ever-changing bottomless soups range from the simple Italian minestrone, to personal creations like southern corned beef chowder.
One of the most popular items on the menu is the Belgian waffle that was featured on You Gotta Eat Here in 2011. Customers can modify the waffle to be churro style and served with the famous house-made cream cheese. “One day … I made a special up for a weekend, and I mixed [cream cheese] with some maple syrup … now it’s a staple,” says John.
After the episode aired, John’s Place became busier than ever. Norm recalls, “when [John Catucci] came in, he was like, ‘this is exactly what I’m going for — like the local diner style,’ and that’s why we were on the premiere episode.”
There’s even dishes on the menu named after people. The Meela Benny is named after John’s daughter, while The Norm Cash Club is named after John’s son. The Hudson Mack Burrito Ole is named after a CTV broadcaster who fell in love with this dish, while the namesake of Valdy’s Frittata is a musician from Salt Spring Island who would personalize his own frittata.
John makes a point of serving classic diner foods that he enjoyed 40 years ago. “I would go as a teenager to get a club sandwich, and you can still get a club. I would go get a Reuben sandwich with sauerkraut; you can still get that. The items like that, I keep. They’re staples.”
John shows he cares by cooking with the best ingredients rather than the best price. Ingredients like free run eggs and real butter are capitalized on the menu. John explains how other restaurants might use half butter and half margarine in their dishes without customers knowing the difference.
“Not use butter? Like come on man,” says John.
Items like the cornbread, hamburgers, and sausages — just to name a few — are made from scratch. John’s Place also sells homemade food products from local bakers. For instance, when John heard on the news that a community member got into trouble with the police for selling jam on her property, he reached out asking if she wanted to sell her jam at John’s Place.
“For a year I sold her jam for her, and for nothing — I didn’t make a nickel, it was for her, because that’s part of the community.”
John’s mom inspired the food policy where he insists, “if you didn’t like it, you aren’t paying for it. So, we take it off the bill, no charge.” Anyone who works for John has to follow this rule at all times to keep it John’s Place.
“John’s concept … takes it up to a whole different level,” Deborah states.
At the heart of the restaurant is more than just the food. John wants his customers to be welcomed like they would by family.
“He always believed in the customer and it wasn’t that the customer was right, it was about pleasing the customer,” says Deborah.
The long-term, front of house staff have created and fostered many regulars who call John’s Place home. “Every single person has added something to this place, but our main girls [are] the heart,” Deborah says.
“I know people, but not like them. They have regulars,” says John. The front of house staff believe that the family feeling comes from accepting people as they are. In the early days, John didn’t make the staff wear uniforms or conform to strict rules. “Here we can be ourselves, we can be silly,” says Deborah, who’s known as Mama Bear.
“I just really try to be myself and I try not to be the norm, pun intended,” Norm jokes.
It didn’t matter who you were, your background, or your past, as long as you could bring the John’s Place family experience to life, it was all you needed. “It’s a family place,” John remarks.
“I really got to experience these people growing up with their kids and their grandkids, and I’m still here to see that so it’s pretty special. We had bonds like you’d have no idea,” says Deborah.
Nowadays in downtown Victoria, it’s easy for a brunch place to get super busy, especially on weekends. John reveals that he’s unsure if he would even wait in the long line to get into his own restaurant. When mobs of customers multiply or they’re a server short, John attempts to maintain the family policy.
“You get welcomed into a family, sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes [we’re] so overwhelmingly busy.”
When it comes to the one-star reviews, John makes an effort to pay attention to every experience a customer shares. He responds to negative reviews by trying to invite the customer back. “You talk to people like they’re human: ‘I’m really sorry we got slammed. Come back, on me.’ I do what I can,” John explains.
Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. When COVID-19 affected John’s Place, John had to sacrifice parts of his personal life from the lack of business.
“There were months that went by during the two years where I didn’t take a dollar,” he reveals.
After three months of being closed it was time to open the doors to the public again. When the government released social distancing mandates for dining, John installed plexi-glass to each booth and made them look like hockey boards to compliment the sports archives that decorate the walls. “It worked out good … Now that [the mandate is] over, they’ll stay forever because it really [gives] privacy to each booth,” says John.
“Whatever happens now I can probably face it,” says Norm, as he reflects on his second year of managing during COVID.
When he took over three years ago, Norm knew he wanted to keep the values, concept, and menu the same because that’s where the magic lies. “No name change, it’s going to be John’s Place forever.”
When it comes to the food, Norm says, “I hope to solidify that so that never changes, so that when my dad eventually does want to retire that the place can still live on with his recipes and the way he does things.”
Norm wants to see the family restaurant grow like his father did and be with it wherever it goes, even if it means it has to change locations, there will always be a John’s Place in Victoria.