In Food + Drink

The Old Synagogue Breathing New Life Into Fremantle’s Dining Scene

This summer, a former synagogue is set to become a hot new hospitality precinct in Fremantle, Perth.

Originally built in 1902, as a place of worship for the city’s Jewish community, the heritage-listed building, located on Fremantle’s ‘Cappuccino Strip’, has experienced various incarnations – from hospital ward to 80s punk clothing outlet, Skid Rose. But after being abandoned and boarded up for more than a decade, it’s been brought back to life once more.

Opening December 2019, Mr Chapple’s, Tonic & Ginger, The Arbor and L’Chaim are four individual food and drink venues, housed within The Old Synagogue, bringing to the table the combined talents of head chef Leigh Power (ex-Gingerboy and Sweetwater) and international bartending heavyweight Ben Tua (ex-Sweetwater and Mechanics Institute).

The dining precinct is the vision of Nokturnl Events duo Ross Drennan and Drew Flanagan.

“It’s an exciting time in Fremantle at the moment with the city undergoing a once-in-a-lifetime transformation,” says Drennan.

He’s referring to Sirona Capital and the City of Fremantle’s $220 million Kings Square Renewal Project, recent venues like Freo Social, and efforts by a new wave of private investors to pump life back into the heart of the bohemian port city and its once-vibrant centre of commerce, just 30 minutes from Perth.

Within the cooling walls of Tonic & Ginger, on a day where the mercury is pushing 37, the former house of prayer feels like a sanctuary. Above us, orange and silver glass spheres are suspended, like so many speckled planets in space. “We fitted those lights ourselves,” Drennan says.

Daylight streams through an original leadlight window, illuminating a blue Star of David. I ask if the restoration process proved difficult.

“Having a background in property development helped,” Drennan says. “We knew we’d have to be sympathetic to the existing buildings. Before we even got to the architects, we met with the State Heritage Office and the heritage architect at the City of Fremantle.” He points to the restaurant’s freestanding mezzanine.

“We’ve painted it black to show it’s not original. To maintain heritage principals, you have to be able to pull down whatever you’ve put in without affecting the fabric of the building.”

Drennan says he and Flanagan were inspired to create the host of venues when walking around the many stairwells and spaces of the property. “Being from events, we like to break big areas up into smaller ones to try to cater for different types of people.”

They’ve succeeded. The area we’re seated in has been transformed into stylish, two-level Asian restaurant, Tonic & Ginger, where Power will continue his love of Asian cuisine with a signature red duck curry, and a scallop dish he says will be a winner – scallop ceviche, with a coconut, lemongrass and ginger curry, topped with crispy shallots and Thai basil flowers.

“Desserts will be traditionally French with Asian influences,” says Power, who originally trained in European food.

Beneath the synagogue’s former cellar, speakeasy-style, L’Chaim, waits to be discovered via a hidden door. A toast meaning, ‘to life’ in Hebrew, this old-world themed small bar features highly trained bartenders, delivering elite creations.

“We are going all out with rotary evaporators, centrifuges, in-house fermentations, our own distillations, we will be doing some seriously crazy stuff down there,” says Tua.

Then there’s Mr Chapple’s, an all-day café cross wine and WA craft beer bar. Housed in the adjoining 100-year-old shopfront (former Beer’s Building), it’s named in honour of a former owner.

Serving up small, share-style global grazing plates, it’s here (and The Arbor) Power says he’ll prove he’s not a ‘one trick pony.’ But breakfast at Mr Chapple’s will be big, and it’s evident by the excited way Power lets slip his idea for a play on a Vietnamese Banh Mi – a soft-shell crab croissant with chilli and coriander hollandaise – that Asian flavours remain his passion.

Finally, The Arbor, is a free-flowing beer garden, with mature trees and vines, spanning alfresco spaces and rooftop decks.

Days after opening, it seems word has spread, for as hot as it is out here, there’s a chilled vibe going on this lunchtime, with music pulsing and people dining; office workers, groups of friends, couples… even a group of mums with bubs.

With the smell of Power’s classic pub bites wafting from the wood-fired oven and charcoal grill, and with views over Fremantle Oval, across to Fremantle Markets, and through Norfolk pines to the coast, The Arbor pays tribute to Perth’s enviable climate and lifestyle.

Drennan says numbers at the weekend’s launch reached capacity and that local business owners are already commenting they’re seeing an increase of visitors from all over Perth.

“The whole weekend our lawn’s just covered in people sitting down with friends on picnic rugs. It’s very Fremantle,” he says.

Just like the anticipation of the heat-relieving afternoon wind locals term, ‘The Doctor’, there’s real excitement brewing in the air here, with the expectancy of the cultural revival that some may even see as salvation.

(All images: The Old Synagogue / supplied)

Published 17 December, 2019