Sydney restaurants Alpha, Yellow and the Watson's Bay Boutique Hotel are vying for the best bar or restaurant interior design in the 2014 Belle Coco Republic Interior Design Awards, beating out competition from venues in Australia’s other cities, notably Melbourne.

That Sydney is home to all three finalists shows that there’s an equal sophistication among new restaurants opening in Sydney and Melbourne, says Belle magazine’s editor-in-chief Neale Whitaker, one of the judges of this year’s awards.

“For many years Melbourne was leading the way and I think they got it right more often that Sydney did, but that is changing,” he said.

That shift can be explained in part by the work of designers such as Pascale Gomes-McNabb, the architect responsible for the interiors of iconic Melbourne venues including Cumulus Inc. and Stokehouse.

“[Pascale] is now regularly designing restaurant interiors in Sydney, whereas once upon a time she was exclusively Melbourne, and you could say that she had an exclusively Melbourne signature,” says Whitaker.

One of Gomes-McNabb’s most recent Sydney interiors is Yellow. The Potts Point restaurant is chef Brent Savage and sommelier Nick Hildebrandt’s foray into French-inspired bistro dining, and Whitaker describes the Gomes-McNabb-designed interior as slick, urban and appropriate for the clientele.

“Pascale’s signature is quirky. Everything she does has an eccentricity about it. You can normally tell when she’s done an interior and this one is no exception. Everything is very bespoke, from the light fittings to the colours she chooses,” he says.

The building that houses Yellow, 57 McLeay Street, has a strong connection to the artistic community that has resided in Potts Point for decades. In the 1950s the building was an art gallery, before becoming the base of a collaborative artistic movement in the ‘60s.

“It was always an artistic hub in Potts Point,” says Whitaker. “I think she’s very cleverly translated that eccentricity into a modern restaurant interior.”

Meanwhile at Watson's Bay Boutique Hotel, a bright, fresh and beachy update has earned Jeremy Bull from Alexander & Co. his spot on the list of finalists. Different parts of the historic building – the public bar, the restaurant areas, meeting rooms – have been given distinct personalities.

“I think one thing you’ve got to keep in mind is who your punters are going to be,” says Whitaker. The Alexander & Co. design has catered to Watson's Bay Boutique Hotel’s popularity with families, who throng the hotel at weekends. “It’s got a very friendly feel,” says Whitaker. “It feels clean and modern and sophisticated. It’s not over-designed.”

This commitment to simplicity of design is also evident in the interior of another finalist, Greek restaurant Alpha on Castlereagh Street.

“It’s very simple. I described it personally as: ‘just Greek enough’,” recalls Whitaker. “It hasn’t resorted to kitsch … it’s just a very contemporary, beautiful space in an old building.”

Close inspection reveals Greek references in the design’s details, from pendant lights to blue-and-white tiling. The timelessness of Alpha’s design is representative of a broader trend favouring simplicity, after years of what Whitaker calls over-styling.

“It was a theme in pubs as well as restaurants and bars,” he says. “Some of those interiors have dated very quickly.”

Some of Sydney’s most successful restaurants have very simple interiors, says Whitaker, who cites Longrain as an example of a simple interior design that has stood the test of time.

“It was designed for longevity and was given a contemporary, urban feel,” he says. “It appealed to a very broad group of people, and it felt very appropriate for that inner-city, Surry Hills location.”

In Potts Point, Greek restaurant The Apollo, though not a finalist, is another example of timeless interior design, thanks to George Livissianis’s touch.

“It will look as good 10 years down the track as it does now, because it’s purely classic. It’s contemporary, it’s elegant, it’s well considered and there’s no gimmick. Nothing in there is going to date.”

People are realising that simple is better, says Whitaker. “What you need is for the food to be the star … you don’t want the whole experience of sitting in that room to overwhelm everything else.”

The winners will be announced at a ceremony on May 14.