Norwich – When Ravi Singh looked to buy a restaurant, he set out to research the options.
Singh parked outside and watched customers come and go. He sat inside, ate his meals, watched the staff, the presentation of the dishes, the reactions of the customers and, of course, the taste of the dishes.
It then landed at the Fat Cat Grill & Bar at 381 W. Main St., Norwich, owned by longtime Norwich restaurateurs Stephan and Debra Nousiopoulos.
“I was looking for a good restaurant in a nice city,” Singh said last week. “There are so few. I found that. I watched from the outside for a few weeks, then from the inside for a few weeks, trying to see how they were selling the food and stuff, and it turned out pretty well.
Fat Cat, which opened in 2011, is the descendant of the popular former Olympic Pizza across the street, owned by the Nousiopoulos family since 1968 except for a few years when the couple sold it to an external operator.
Stephan and Debra Nousiopoulos, both 65, were looking to retire from the restaurant business last year, and a real estate friend referred Singh to them.
“I didn’t want to give it to anyone,” said Stephan Nousiopoulos. “We got on well. He tries very hard. They spent three to four months with me in the kitchen. He’ll keep most things.
The couple will not be far away. Debra owns the Medusa salon next door, where Stephan has his architecture office. As an architect, Stephan Nousiopoulos has worked on major projects in the area, including Harbor Towers in New London, a long-planned golf course in Franklin, and renovations to major historic buildings at 77-91 Main St., Norwich. He called the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Broadway his “most rewarding” project.
They will keep the salon and the architecture business but want to spend time with their five young grandchildren, aged 6 months to 3.5 years.
Singh, 56, was born in the Punjab region of northern India. He moved to the United States over 20 years ago and has lived in California, New York, Massachusetts and now Connecticut. He and his wife, Ruby Bhalla, and their 15-year-old daughter moved to Glastonbury late last year.
Singh’s passion for restaurants started with a love of good food.
“I was born into restaurants,” he said.
His parents owned a roadside restaurant in northwest India in 1946 and moved to Punjab when their home became part of Pakistan.
While Singh grew up loving his mother’s authentic Indian cuisine, he only learned to cook when he came to America. He was living in California when one day a friend asked him to try cooking a chicken.
“I had no idea what I was doing, actually, because I had never done it before,” Singh said. “I started thinking about how my mom used to do it. My friend came downstairs and said, “Oh my god, I’m just dying from the smell”. It’s so good.’
They finished eating it in 20 minutes.
He continued to cook for roommates over the years and ran restaurants in New York and Massachusetts.
For now, he will keep the Fat Cat menu as is, while noting customer cravings. He will ask questions every time the plates come back with more than a quarter portion uneaten.
“I don’t compromise on quality,” Singh said. “If we cook something and it’s not right, start over and apologize to the customer that it will take a little longer. I can’t sell something I don’t like.
He and his wife also plan to start offering breakfast. Bhalla is working on breakfast items and will be working the morning shift. And the delivery service will start around the end of March.
At home, they are working on a few authentic Indian dishes, not Americanized Indian food, he assured, to add to the menu.
“The name of the restaurant is Fat Cat Grill & Bar,” Singh said. “It is not specified whether it is Greek, Italian or Indian cuisine. If the name was Anthony’s Restaurant, it sounds Italian. If you had Indian food in there, you would say, “What does Indian food do in an Italian restaurant?” With the Fat Cat name, I can add anything I want to the restaurant as long as people like it.
The name, Fat Cat, has a double meaning. Debra Nousiopoulos, a longtime cat lover who helps trap feral cats for neutering and treatment, chose the name for a giant 32-pound Russian Blue cat they had at the time.
And Stephan liked how the name matched a jazz theme. They created a logo with a cool cat wearing a black hat and sunglasses, holding a burger in one paw and a cocktail in the other. Local advertisements for the restaurant reminded people that it was the next generation of their favorite Olympic pizza.
Patrons have adopted the name, contributing to the extensive collection of cat statues, wall hangings and clocks that adorn the venue.
Like Singh, Stephan Nousiopoulos grew up in his parents’ restaurants. Ilias and Kalianti Nousiopoulos moved from Koryfi, Greece to New London in 1968. They purchased Deb’s Grinder Shop, which became Olympic Pizza, located in the front corner of a two-story brown house at 372 West Main St. There was a table and four seats, recalls Stephan.
In 1974, they demolished the house and built a 60-seat Olympic Pizza restaurant on the property. In the late 1980s, Stephan designed and built the modern, triangular 24,000 square foot complex that housed Olympic Pizza, its lower-level banquet hall, Chelsea Groton Bank, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a recruiting station of the Army, Uncas Health District and Connecticut Community Care, Inc.
When the bank moved, Debra Nousiopoulos started her own business, Medusa Salon. She laughed that decades later people still think she’s a hairdresser.
“I’m not a hairstylist, I just run the business,” she said.
In the late 1990s, Stephan sold the restaurant, retaining ownership of the building.
“A developer came and made me an offer for the building,” he recalls. “I didn’t know it was CVS at first.”
Still eager to run a restaurant, the couple opened Fat Cat just across West Main Street from their former property in 2011.
Giving up the restaurant has now caused the two to reflect on its legacy. Their three children – Nikole Giovinazzo, 36, a St. Bernard High School English teacher and published poet, Elias Nousiopoulos, 35, a freelance colorist at NBC Universal in New York, and Tiffany Petersen, 33, a wholesale director of the Byredo fragrance company for the North American region — grew up in Olympic. They showed the patrons’ young children the giant aquarium and played in the vast banquet hall.
A group of prominent Norwich-area business and civic leaders worked there, including Probate Judge Charles Norris, accountant Edwin Muenzner, and Norwich police officer Karen Valcourt, the city’s first female officer . Some workers stayed and advanced to the restaurant itself.
Front-end manager Sarah Tardif has been with Fat Cat “since day one, 10 years,” she said. His daughter, Kierra Tardif has been working there for two years, first as a hostess and now that she is 18, as a waitress.
“I thought it was going to be weird at first,” Sarah Tardif said of the change in ownership. “But it was really easy. Ravi is a really good guy. I’ve worked for Steve and Deb for so long that they’ve become like family. But I still see Steve. He’s right next door. He’s got his office there, and Deb has her living room.