Lygon Street

Melbourne's Changing Food Scene

Published: 19th March, 2019


Lygon Street, once the preserve of Italian and Greek migrants looking to recapture an element of European culture has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Once upon a time, throngs of people drank coffee or ate at one of the many cafes or restaurants along the strip. Bars played live music and you could rack up a game at one of the old pool halls.

Not any more.

The vibrancy of the street is in decay, the crowds are largely gone, and many of the shops are shuttering. So what went wrong?

Watts Corner Shoe Store was established in 1895

This is a rhetorical question, because I don't have the answer. And of course, there could be an argument that nothing is wrong, it has just changed. For example, look at the photo below. Sure, it is a picture of bicycles. Lygon Street is very close to the city and to Melbourne University. It has always been popular with students, but like all inner-city suburbs it has been gentrified over a number of years. And to a certain extent, gone is the reliance on cars, replaced by a younger crowd's more eco-alertness.

Bicycles are more popular now.

And that's not a bad thing. Lygon's history is not all glorious: there is an association with the infamous Carlton Crew and the Melbourne Gangland killings (1998-2010). But Lygon Street's history also includes Watts Corner Shoe Store, which was established in 1895 and is still run by the Watt family, and Toto's Pizza House, claimed to be the oldest pizza house in Australia (1961).

Toto's Pizza House, claimed to be the oldest pizza house in Australia

Toto's has changed. The historic facade gives way to a modern interior, but across the road is Lambs, not as old but just as much a Melbourne institution. Lambs serves up some of, if not the best souvlaki in Melbourne, but it appears most of its business is now in takeaway. We ordered food to dine in and it came to the table as takeaway on a plate. Only one other table in the restaurant was used while we were there, yet the building itself is classic Melbourne boom style architecture: thick walls, tiled floors and wrought iron. There are not many like it any more, which is the problem.

Souvlaki and Retsina at Lambs is food heaven


The photo below is not an entirely fair comparison but it illustrates my point. Jimmy Watson's, on the left has two fabulous interior bars, you can sit out on the pavement on Lygon Street, and there is a lovely interior courtyard. It also has this "roof garden", which is, in my opinion, pretty soulless. On the right we have the entrance to Lambs Restaurant. There is certainly a place for a light, airy bar like Jimmy Watson's, but these kind of areas are more popular than ever, being cheap, disposable and largely interchangeable. Lambs is different. It is a glimpse at a history that may have gone forever, but needn't be discarded.

Jimmy Watson's "roof garden" and Lambs Restaurant

Perhaps this is just modern times. Takeaway food is convenient, and both Lambs and Toto's across the road seem to do a roaring trade in takeaway. But real estate is expensive and developers have little incentive for sentimentality. Next time you are in Lygon Street or the top of the city, maybe have a wander up to Lambs, have some great food, a glass of wine and imagine a time gone by.

Souvlaki and Retsina at Lambs is food heaven

*Retsina is a sweet red wine. It goes very nicely with lamb

Go to the Lygon Street gallery for more images...