Icon review: Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar

Archive photo of Jimmy Watson's on Lygon Street.
Archive photo of Jimmy Watson's on Lygon Street. Photo: Marina Oliphant

333 Lygon Street Carlton, Australia 3053

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

It would be wrong to say Jimmy Watson's was Melbourne's first wine bar. There were plenty of places where a man could get sozzled before 1935; Watson had even worked in a few of them. But back then, men stuck to beer, and women (those daring enough to drink in public, anyway) enjoyed a tipple of sweet sherry.

Although he continued to serve and even blend his own fortified wine, Watson's objective once he'd opened the doors of J.C. Watson Wine Merchants was to introduce Melbourne – and eventually Australia – to unfortified table wine. His father was a Scotsman, but his mother was Italian and had emigrated with her sisters from Pisa in the 1870s. It was from her that he'd inherited both the custom and joy of drinking table wine with a meal.

About five years in, Watson began visiting Victorian wineries and buying 300-litre barrels of dry whites and young reds to bottle and sell at his wine bar. It was this championing of Australian table wine that cemented Watson's pioneer status in the wine world.

Go-to dish: Char-grilled lamb roast.
Go-to dish: Char-grilled lamb roast. Photo: Eddie Jim

After his death in 1962, friends established the Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy, awarded to the best one-year-old red wine still in barrel, one of the country's most keenly sought wine awards. 

Whether for its wine, its proximity to Melbourne Uni or the warmth of its hospitality, Jimmy Watson's is still a people-magnet. As many famous types have been thrown out (Scientology's L. Ron Hubbard) as have dined in (American actor Ava Gardner), and, for a time, it was the unofficial meeting place for World War II servicemen and women, who would gather for drinks and cold cuts from nearby Moran and Cato's deli.

Most of the military-themed paraphernalia that decorates the place today has been left behind or donated by its wartime clientele, and their patronage also goes part way to explaining the name of the the Thin Red Line Bar and Mess upstairs.

The central dining room has remained virtually untouched.
The central dining room has remained virtually untouched. Photo: Eddie Jim

These days, Watson's son, Allan, and grandson Simon run the place. They've made a few changes, installing the kitsch, dimly lit Wolf's Lair back bar, the Treetops rooftop bar, and the aforementioned bar and mess, which doubles as a private dining space.

The central dining room has remained virtually untouched since it was redesigned in 1963 by celebrated architect Robin Boyd, its whitewashed walls and high, timber-beamed ceiling providing the same warm and comfortable atmosphere today as they did 55 years ago. It can be hard to get a table, even on a chilly Wednesday night.

The menu isn't too concerned with sticking to a theme. There's a Thai beef salad listed next to a Venetian carbonara, right below an Israeli couscous and haloumi salad. Like the venue, it's designed to appeal to a mixed crowd.

House-made duck pâté and pork terrine.
House-made duck pâté and pork terrine. Photo: Eddie Jim

The house-made duck pâté​ is smooth and funky, but could use more bread and less of the accompanying relish. The calamari, too, is tender and well-seasoned, although its semolina coating could use more crunch.

There were two standout dishes on this visit – perfectly pink char-grilled lamb on garlicky pesto mash with a sticky rosemary jus and sauteed snowpeas; and a textbook creme brulee, with a sweet, silky interior and a highly crackable lid.

And the wine? Jimmy Watson's is still a great place to go for a drink. A few international labels have crept onto the wine list over the years, but it's still largely Australian. In fact, it's probably one of the largest Australian lists in the country, as well as among the best-priced.

Introducing us to table wine, Watson shaped the way we eat and drink. And while there are bars and restaurants around town serving better food and more exciting wines, none captures Melbourne's history quite like Jimmy Watson's.

Est: 1935

Famous diners: Ava Gardner, L. Ron Hubbard, Bob Hawke, Sir Zelman Cowen.

Go-to Dish: Char-grilled lamb roast ($32.50).