Literally and figuratively, Captain Frank’s covered the waterfront. On any given day, visitors to the East 9th St. Pier restaurant might be felled by wilting humidity or blistering wind. Once inside, they could order anything from hake to steak. Some remember the place as “wonderful” with the “best seafood.” Others describe it as “filthy,” “dimly lit,” and “a little creepy.” Many recall “fun times” in and out, but more than a few witnessed depressed, intoxicated or careless motorists drive their cars off the pier into the lake. Even the signage was fluid: Depending on the year, Captain Frank’s might be a “Lobster House” or a “Sea Food House.”
For 35 years, in fact, dichotomy and variety consistently defined Captain Frank’s. Patrons could enjoy the sounds of a nearby Cleveland Indians baseball game or watch planes take off and land at Burke Lakefront Airport. Or perhaps they’d watch a romantic sunset; converse with fishermen; absorb Lake Erie’s dubious smells; or fend off panhandlers, including one guy who lived outside the restaurant and called himself “Captain Frank.” The establishment was dry for its first five years, but later customers remember “power cocktails between double shifts,” free drinks for politicians, and compliant service to high schoolers.
Captain Frank was Frank Visconti, a Sicilian immigrant who emigrated to the United States in 1914, sold fish from a horse-drawn buggy and, for a time, operated the old Fulton Fish Market at East 22nd Street and Woodland Avenue. In 1953, Visconti bought an abandoned boat depot on the pier and turned it into one of Cleveland’s best-known restaurants. The structure burned in 1958 but reopened within a year. It flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, with great lake views, an indoor waterfall, festoons of fishing nets and frequently dirty lobster tanks providing all the ambiance families and couples could want. Notables ranging from Nelson Eddy, Judy Garland and Flip Wilson to Mott the Hoople and the Shah of Iran partied into the wee hours (or until they were asked to leave).
The structure itself actually housed several businesses; the Cleveland Seamen’s Service had offices on the north side of the restaurant and Visconti operated a luncheonette behind his restaurant. Old timers also recall a “custard stand” which may actually have been the luncheonette.
Visconti died in 1984. The restaurant limped along for another five years; but growing competition, increasingly mediocre food and service, and the fading allure of downtown were too much. New owner Rudolph Hubka, Jr., declared bankruptcy in 1989 and the building was demolished in 1994. Today, visitors to a reborn East 9th Street Pier can experience Mexican food, volleyball, bike tours and boat cruises. But the area’s offshore sights, sounds and smells can still invoke memories of untold fishy experiences.