Jimmy Watson's

Classic: Jimmy Watson's chargrilled eye fillet.
Classic: Jimmy Watson's chargrilled eye fillet. Photo: Eddie Jim

333 Lygon Street Carlton, Australia 3053

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Opening hours Monday-Saturday noon-11pm; Wolf's Lair open Sundays.
Features Licensed
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9347 3985

Long ago, before espresso coffee arrived in Carlton, back in the days of beer, more beer and unironic moustaches, Jimmy Watson opened a wine bar. It's still there 78 years later, run by his son and grandson, who persist in the glorious mission of highlighting wines from up-and-coming producers and sharing bargains from bigger names.

This place has shouldered much of the load of weaning Australians off spumante and towards connoisseurship and it still deserves a place in drinkers' hearts, not least because it focuses on wining well at moderate prices.

These days, many Melbourne wine bars offer better wine service and food, but there aren't any with Jimmy Watson's atmospheric Robin Boyd-designed timber-beamed dining room (from a 1963 renovation) or its great variety of rooms, nooks and terraces, which each attract their own crowd. There's the den-like Wolf's Lair, the astroturfed Treetops bar, even a Thin Red Line military-themed hangout. It's a fun place to visit, whether you're a university student, a thrifty wine buff or merely thirsty.

Jimmy Watson's Wine bar in Carlton.
Jimmy Watson's Wine bar in Carlton. Photo: Eddie Jim

A middle-of-the-road menu includes pizza, pasta, calamari and steak, all of it nudging gourmet without quite getting there.

Housemade pappardelle with duck ragu and mushrooms had good flavour, but much of the pasta clumped together. Chickpea flour-crumbed calamari curls were pretty good, although placing them on tired salad leaves undid some good work.

The steak did the job and the pizza was OK (gluten-free bases are available). There's plenty of interesting wine to try, but neither the list nor the various blackboards offer annotations, the glassware is basic and some of the wine service was laughable.

The rooftop bar at Jimmy Watson's is a great spot to kick back.
The rooftop bar at Jimmy Watson's is a great spot to kick back. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

For example, a clear request for pinot gris (a white wine) resulted in the arrival of a pinot noir (a red wine). I don't need an encyclopaedic rundown about a grape's provenance and the songs sung to the vines every time I slug booze, but I reckon the right colour wine is a decent baseline.

I love the old-school elements of Jimmy Watson's and its history. There's nothing else like it. Attempts are clearly being made to garner a young crowd with all those groovy nooks and the easy-going menu, but I'm not sure it adds up to educating the next generation of wine drinkers.

Three stars out of five