Local restaurateur’s career spans more than three decades
If you want to see Raj Singh's face light up, ask him to talk about his lengthy history in the restaurant business. It's a journey that spans more than 32 years and has taken him from Kathmandu, Nepal all the way to Cleveland Heights.
It’s a distance of more than 7,500 miles, though Singh doesn’t much worry about numbers. “Fifty-three, I think,” he responded when asked his age. “Twenty-two . . . twenty-three years,” is how he characterizes the length of his marriage to Beverly Roberts Singh, founder and director of the Atma Center, located right next door to Singh’s Taste Restaurant on Lee Road.
Singh, who grew up in Kathmandu in a prominent Indian family, cut his teeth working as a manager in a tourist restaurant owned by his uncle, shortly after college graduation.
"I didn't want a common job," he said.
Perhaps his family lineage, which he describes as “warrior,” a reference to the second highest of four historical social orders in Nepal, wouldn’t comfortably allow it. Nevertheless, Singh swiftly took to the business.
“I did OK. After four months, I became really good,” he said. “I developed a system to get orders from the dining room to the kitchen, which they weren’t doing at that time.” The server would take the order and say it to the kitchen based on memory. Singh also developed an appreciation for fresh ingredients; a trait that would serve him well in the future.
Years later, Singh found himself working as a waiter at Houlihan’s, a job he described as easy. Since then, he’s become something of a serial entrepreneur, opening up his first restaurant, Café Tandoor on South Taylor Road, in December 1992. Soon to celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Indian restaurant is consistently recognized as one of the best Indian restaurants in town, if not the best.
“Within seven to eight years, I opened seven to eight businesses,” said Singh.
In 2000, he added an Aurora location and opened in Westlake in 2001. He later ceded control of the Westlake restaurant to his younger brother and a chef who had been with him for years.
In 1998, in the Lee Road location now occupied by Taste, Singh opened The Wine Room, a forerunner to the restaurant smoking bans that have swept through many parts of the country years later.
“I did a survey—I think in ‘98— and I opened a 100 percent non-smoking bar with light food, before even California went smoke free. Café Tandoor followed suit in 2009,” said Singh.
Having long been urged by a friend to invest in a nightclub, Singh took his entrepreneurial spirit to the warehouse district.
“In ’97, I got involved with Spy Bar, formerly on W. 6th Street downtown. It was a big club and one of the best clubs in the country,” said Singh. “On certain nights we changed the music; still we were very tight on dress code. The neighborhood, the city . . . whatever, they got a little worried about the hip hop crowd. We always charged money at the door and we had very tight security, but anything that happened on the street, they blamed the Spy Bar.”
Following numerous court battles, Singh and then-business partner Chris Praizner were forced to close the popular club and sell their liquor license.
Undeterred, Singh opened Taste, where he spends the majority of his working hours, in November 2008, two years after shutting down The Wine Room.
“I was planning to open up this type of restaurant a long time ago, back around 2002 or 2003, but I didn’t have a chance to put the right team together, because to do anything you need a good team,” explained Singh. “One day I was talking to Ricardo, my friend, owner of Fat Cats, and he said he would help me. That’s when we started doing the project.”
Specializing in modern American cuisine, according to Singh, Taste has become one of many popular and critically acclaimed restaurants in the Heights.
“In fine dining, there are a lot of details involved. Lots of wine-related questions people have, which my partner, Larry Weider, who is a wine connoisseur, handles,” said Singh. “He takes care of the wine part and I take care of the management. That’s because we have to pull the team together from the kitchen to the outside. We make sure the service is good, everybody’s happy and customers are satisfied.”
After struggling through some tough times following the collapse of Enron in 2001—an event that Singh sites as a seminal moment in the decline of his fortunes—he remains safely in business. He also has a positive outlook for the future,
“People give me a lot of good feedback here. They’re really very supportive,” said Singh. “Cleveland Heights, Shaker, and those who come from a little farther, too—Beachwood, South Euclid, University Heights. They thank me for being here, and they’ve been always wishing good luck to us from day one, so that keeps us going.”
Richard Stewart is a FutureHeights board member and owner of Digizoom Media.