Owned and operated by Leo and Shirley Spralja and founded by Joso Spralja in the 1960′s, Joso’s restaurant has achieved continuous success of over 36 years in business and is considered a landmark of the Toronto hospitality scene. It is truly a unique dining experience which transports guests to the warmth and beauty of the stunning Dalmatian coast. An all encompassing, sensual journey… guests are lured into a collection of Joso’s lifelong artistic expressions. A feast for the eyes, ears and mouth, one finds themselves surrounded by voluptuous female forms, Adriatic Sea motifs and a multitude of gold and bejeweled trinkets on every wall, shelf and corner. From the depths of the kitchen and to your table arrives a dazzling array of fish species from across the globe, each carefully and knowledgably described by your server. Prepared with the utmost care and simple, traditional flavours your meal is presented in all of its natural beauty, a delight to share with friends or to keep all to yourself.
In 1967 the founders of Joso’s restaurant, (Joso and his wife Angiolina) bought a little coffeehouse business at 71 Yorkville that Joso had frequented as a patron and performer. It was here that he had his entertainment career ”breakthrough”, meeting his partner in performance Malka. Their duo, became a singing sensation, traveling the world performing as the Canadian “Sonny and Cher”.The little coffeehouse was renamed Joso’s Cafe amidst the bohemian beatnik culture of Yorkville in the 70’s. It was there that Joso offered guitar and singing lessons by day and at night he and Angiolina would run the coffee house. Joso would perform for his patrons as would visiting international artists like Jose Greco, Liberace, Nana Mouskouri , Harry Belafonte, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Jose Feliciano, Joni Mitchell and many others.People were drawn to Joso’s cafe for the unusual art, beautiful music, espresso coffees, pastries, sandwiches and charismatic hosts. Conservative Toronto meant no liquor was in sight however the odd patron would pop a bottle from their pocket to share!When the house was full, things were okay but the winters were long and cold and so were the profits.
As a new immigrant to Canada Angiolina thought about how to make the, business more profitable. Since she was an excellent cook she searched fellow immigrant shops to find the (then exotic) ingredients needed to prepare the dishes she had grown up with. She managed to find squid, octopus, mussels and clams amongst the Italian and Portuguese fishmongers and she used the cafe patrons as her taste testers. These were the first Torontonians to eat Calamari, Clams Buzara and grilled Octopus. They devoured it with enthusiasm and encouraged her for more. The gentrification of the neighborhood began in the mid 70’s and 71 Yorkville would go on to be demolished. Since the wonderfully prepared seafood got such a reception it spurred Joso, Angiolina and their two children on to open a block north in a then dilapidated 2 1/2 story Victorian semi 202 Davenport Road. It is here that Joso and his family worked collectively to build and solidify its reputation as the best fine dining seafood restaurant to be found anywhere in the city.
The longevity of Joso’s can be attributed to the family’s dedication to upholding the highest standards of service and absolute consistency in providing guests with the best available product in the world. Joso’s is currently owned and operated by Leo and Shirley Spralja the son and daughter in law of Joso himself – they continue to maintain the familial connection with the restaurant. Their son and daughter, Marko and Olivia are both involved in the operation of the business and represent the third generation of the Spralja family’s commitment to providing Toronto with the most unique dining experience available in Canada.
Joso was born in 1929 as the only child of a fisherman’s son from Zman, Dugi Otok and raised by his mother in the Dalmatian coastal town of Zadar, Croatia, a small walled medieval city on the Adriatic sea. As a young child Joso had an intrinsic understanding and connection to the sea, which heavily influenced his development as an artist. It was pre-world war 2 , a very difficult time for everyone as the impending threat of war loomed. At the time of his birth, food was scarce and it was not uncommon to be breast fed until 4 years of age. Later in life, he would declare this fact as the influence for creating the very well endowed and curvaceous female forms that exist on the walls of the restaurant.
Joso would often accompany his mother to church where he became an alter boy and joined the boys choir. The priests recognized his talented voice and offered to nurture his singing ability and in return, they helped provide a little food. The priests told his mother that they’d never come across such a marvelous and angelic soprano voice. In a way, the church had adopted him, hoping that at puberty his mother would allow him to remain a soprano. However she chose not to. Instead he left to train as an operatic tenor and went on to perform many operas. During this period he was simultaneously under the tutelage of the legendary Brkan Brothers and their “Zadar school of Photography”, he started his first apprenticeship in photography at the age of thirteen. Inspired by the Dalmatian Baroque movement, it became clear that Joso had a unique form of expression inspired and guided by his instinctive love for his homeland.
Joso employs a number of themes and motifs throughout his work, underpinned by the central idea of nature and the sea – he explores ideas about mans relationship to nature, the symbolism of the female form and the iconic symbols of mother and child. He continually revisits the theme of “women and the sea” an erotic, mysterious concept with the female form mimicking both the seas undulating depths and untamable nature. It was after his apprenticeship with the Brkan family that he was hired by an archaeological museum to photograph digs and document them. At the age of 82 was honored by the museum with a retrospective show of the photographic documentation he had done more than 60 years previous. Joso’s discipline and ability to document and archive has served him well his whole life as he has maintained order of his prolific and numerous personal collections.
Joso was invited to Canada by his brother and sister in-law who had emigrated many years earlier. He had a 3 month visa which was renewed upon his pending career as an entertainer. His wife Angiolina and children joined him in 1964 they were 11 & 12 years old.
It was here that he began a successful career in music, performing in a duet with the Israeli born singer Malka Himel “Joso and Malka” became household names in Canada. They effectively introduced North Americans to European Folk music through their performances at the Mariposa Festivals, the Yorkville strip like Riverboat , Mousetrap, Penny Farthing, Act one Scene one and Purple Onion, there was also Georges Spaghetti Factory, The Royal York Hotel, Massey hall and the O’Keefe Centre. They became so popular they had a TV musical variety show called ” World of Music’ featured on Saturday nights immediately following “Hockey Night in Canada”. Their soaring popularity sent them to NYC to perform at Carnegie Hall, the St Regis Hotel and even The Tonight show with Johnny Carson.
Joso’s artistic pursuits of music, art and photography all share an affinity with his passion for food.
Leo Spralja was born in Zadar, Croatia in 1953, the youngest son of Joso and Angiolina’s two children. Leo’s passion for music began at the tender age of 9 when he began playing the guitar. He immigrated with his family to Toronto, Canada at the age of ten where he began his studies with Eli Kassner a renowned classical guitar teacher, who would continue to tutor Leo for the next 15 years. Leo would go on to win numerous awards for his expressive and extremely technical interpretations of classical music. His insatiable appetite for new forms of expression blossomed into a love of Flamenco music in his early twenties which led him to travel and live in Spain. Here he immersed himself in the Flamenco culture where he became fluent in the language and the style. Leo’s mentor has always been his father Joso, artistically and otherwise. Once the family acquired the restaurant Leo was thrown headfirst into the work and lifestyle of being a restaurateur. Guests could always find Leo cooking, serving, greeting and even serenading patrons with Joso on the restaurant floor. Married to Shirley with two children; Marko and Olivia whom now follow in his footsteps working in the restaurant today. Shirley became an integral part of the management of the restaurant and was tutored in the art of hospitality by the restaurant matriarch Angiolina. Together they now own and operate the business.