Carol Calleja, pioneering restaurateur and survivor of the tragic sinking of his yacht Esmeralda, has died aged 80 – 31 years after he was rescued from a drifting dinghy in a disaster at sea that remained impressed in people’s memories.

But the entrepreneur was also known for his chain of innovative eateries, dating back to the 1970s, with which his name is synonymous, as well as for the Sliema Multi-Storey Carpark, the first of its kind in Malta.

His daughter, Nicole Stilon, described him as a “people’s person”, who loved the restaurant scene. It was “all about meeting and being with people” and he needed that, Stilon said about the larger-than-life character, with an eccentric streak.

Recalling him driving around in an eye-catching pink Mini Moke – with a ‘garden’ at the back – she quoted him as saying: “If you can have a garden in your home, why not in your car?”

And that can-do attitude characterised Calleja’s life… Influenced and encouraged to enter the restaurant business by his father-in-law, Bernard Walsh, the man behind London’s famed Wheeler’s seafood eatery and The Ivy, Calleja was instrumental in flying in food items like avocado, asparagus and lobster for the British in Malta at a time when these were rare and unavailable.

“My father was always thinking ahead and inventing new ideas,” said Stilon, who is one of two siblings.

A hardworking, self-made man, he was also devoted to his family and was able to enjoy good quality time with them and his grandchildren, aged between 23 and two, later in life, Stilon said, describing him as an “unconventional” grandad, referred to as “naughty nannu”, who went “down to the children’s level”.

He left Malta for London because his children were at school in England, and he wanted to be with them. And it was there that he was inspired to return home to build a multi-story carpark in the place of his first restaurant, the Winston.

Known as CCCP, standing for City Centre – “or also Carol Calleja” – he had not realised the opposition it would give rise to, Stilon recalled.

Her father lived life to the full, but the yacht tragedy had, of course, left an impact on him, she said, adding it was “not something you would get over and forget”.

A hardworking, self-made man who was also devoted to his family

Esmeralda sank in June 1990 and Calleja was one of two survivors among the four men on board. Together with prominent businessman Manuel Grech, he was rescued after two days of repeatedly reciting the Rosary and feeling desperate as searching aircraft missed them.

The other two men, former Chamber of Commerce president and insurance agent Wilfred Mamo and the yacht’s engineer John Schembri, were never found despite intensive searches.

The 20-metre yacht owned by Calleja had gone missing 20 miles off Sardinia, where the four friends were heading to watch England play in the World Cup. But they never reached their destination because it got caught in a storm and sank when the engine room flooded.

Then 49, Calleja had told Times of Malta how the two survivors had spoken about their past as they drifted on the small dinghy, spending sleepless nights fearing they would be hit by a large vessel as they drifted away from land.

Until recently, Calleja was still involved in the eateries his company operated at the Mellieħa Holiday Centre, including the revamped Great Dane. He had leased its bars and restaurants soon after what is known as Danish Village opened back in the 1970s.

Connected to some of the finer local eateries, he was described as a “pioneer” in the field by Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association President Tony Zahra.

Dating back to the early 1970s, The Winston was a high-end restaurant even in terms of decor, “offering something that did not exist at the time”, and was frequented by patrons on special occasions, Stilon reminisced.

Many would recall the Great Dane dog, Bond, who would accompany her parents to work every evening and sit on a leather armchair as part of the furniture and fittings.

The Winston was the first in a string Calleja had acquired, which included Hunters Tower in Marsaxlokk, The Medina in Mdina, The Carriage in Sliema and Malta’s first high-end Chinese restaurant, Dynasty.

Among the culinary milestones, he had also opened one of Valletta’s first restaurants, Bologna, when there were only around three, and encouraged Sicilian restaurateur Guglielmo Fumia to come to Malta.

Calleja died unexpectedly on April 6 at Mater Dei, leaving the family in shock. He had been undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, but was on the mend, Stilon said.

The funeral is being held at the Divine Mercy Sanctuary, San Pawl Tat-Tarġa, at 9am on Friday.

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