Syracuse doesn’t feel like other Melbourne restaurants. When you step into the converted 19th-century hotel lobby off Little Collins Street, the atmosphere is closer to that of a ritzy foyer than a place to eat dinner. And after almost 21 years, it still feels like one of Melbourne’s best-kept dining secrets.

It’s located on a laneway among other restaurants and cafes that are filled with suits at any hour. A few French-bistro-style tables out the front don’t beckon passers-by, but once you step inside, you’re swallowed up and spellbound.

It’s likely this feeling, along with adhering firmly and proudly to tradition, is one reason the restaurant and wine bar has endured all these years despite increased competition and changing tastes since 1996, when it opened.

What is it about Syracuse?

“It’s the room,” says award-winning chef Philippa Sibley, who joined the restaurant as head chef in May last year. “There’s not anything else really like it.”

Despite its soaring, dramatic ceilings, the space feels small, intimate, elegant and glamorous – all those words that conjure feelings of sentimentality and a lost sense of romance. The velvet curtains that hang over the doorway are thick; the glassware sparkles; the lights on the chandeliers are dim, warm.

“It’s the architecture and the location, of course, says owner Nancy Moussi, who bought the restaurant in 2011 with her husband, Richard. “But also the fact that it’s maintained a specific image and style for all these years. That’s what’s attractive to customers.”

For Moussi, Syracuse has maintained its allure because, quite simply, it hasn’t changed much.

“It’s kept its charm, it’s old-style,” she says. “It’s a bit exclusive.”

“Everything’s so stark and modern these days,” she adds.

Since the Moussis took over the walls have been painted white, and the art has been replaced with mattress-sized mirrors, but that’s all that’s really changed.

“We do some updates, but we’re trying not to change the feel of the room,” Moussi says. “Nothing modern. We’re keeping away from the modern.” But that’s where the food comes in, she says.

“My food works well here because it’s new classics,” Sibley explains. “I love cooking classical dishes but with a modern twist, more quirky, and obviously less butter.

“Syracuse is a port town in Sicily with all different influences, so I can muck around with Spanish, Greek, Italian, French – it’s all relevant.”

Sibley began her career as a pastry chef in Melbourne before working in some of Europe’s most acclaimed restaurants, including Michelin-starred fine diners such as Le Gavroche, La Côte Saint Jacques and Marco Pierre White’s Harvey’s. In the early 2000s she returned to Melbourne and opened some of the city’s best restaurants: Est Est Est, Luxe and Ondine. More recently she has been executive chef at Albert Street Food and Wine, and Prix Fixe (now closed).

“The personality of Syracuse and the personality of the front of house suits me to a T. I just wish the kitchen was a bit bigger,” Sibley says, laughing. “This is the foyer, the counter was reception, and the kitchen was the elevator – hello!”

For Moussi, “Syracuse is an old-fashioned venue that needed an old-fashion style of cooking” with a contemporary edge – a style that Sibley epitomises – to draw in new diners. After Sibley first visited the restaurant, she “signed the contract within a week,” Moussi says. “She saw that she could give a lot to the venue, and it wasn’t so much a new direction as it was going back in the original direction.”

The autumn menu travels all over the Mediterranean, from saffron-scented potato and leek soup with smoked mussels and a fennel doughnut, to Murray cod and duck confit with lentils, roots and red wine burrata.

Playing to Sibley’s strengths, the restaurant also offers dessert-only seatings. Couples often come in late at night for something sweet, like the Walkin’ on Sunshine: a mandarin cheesecake with passionfruit, cream and gold.

“Apart from the pastry-chef gigs I’ve done, this is the first real restaurant I’ve moved into without the help of any backup singers,” Sibley says. “Normally I’ll take someone with me or open a kitchen with staff that followed me before and know my schtick.

“I came in a bit gung-ho, maybe bit off more than I could chew, and probably freaked everyone out a bit. But everything’s mellow now so we can start to step up and do more.”

More in the kitchen perhaps, but for customers, Syracuse will remain the place they’ve known for years. It’s about “staying exclusive” Moussi says.

“And consistent,” adds Sibley.

Syracuse
23 Bank Place, Melbourne

(03) 9670 1777

Hours:
Mon to Thu 7am–11pm
Fri 7am–11.30pm
Sat 6pm-11.30pm

syracuserestaurant.com.au