Melbourne is now home to a little slice of Britain with St Kilda’s new pub, the Lion & Wombat.
It is the first venue for co-owners Alex Back and Sophie Machin, who have a shared love for the quintessential UK pub. Back grew up in England, and the pair spent several years living in the UK before moving back to Melbourne just over four years ago.
“It was one of the biggest things we missed, that UK neighbourhood pub that they have on every corner of every street in the UK. It’s something we missed quite a lot, and we realised talking to other people, not just Brits but also Australians who lived in the UK, that they missed that as well,” said Back.
Heritage was a large part of the appeal of these types of venues, and something that the pair wanted to find in Australia.
“We wanted an old building to have that feeling of a pub that was already established or had been there for a long time. Obviously, that’s a little bit more difficult in Australia, in Melbourne, to find those sorts of venues, but this building is an old dairy that’s been here for 150 years. We loved that about it. We loved that it was an old building with some heritage to it,” Back continued.
The pair settled a small corner venue at the meeting point of Grey and Clyde streets. With Machin’s background in design and some help from her carpenter brother, the duo decided to undertake the majority of the renovations themselves.
The front room has been transformed into a snug space, with dark wood flooring, Chesterfield lounges, and Persian carpets. The large windows open up onto either street, giving passersby a peek into the venue. This opens into the bistro area, with banquette seating and a distinctive gallery wall curated by Machin herself. Then, guests reach the main bar and outdoor beer garden.
“We wanted to have smaller separate areas so it gave a bit more intimacy. Luckily the venue has that. Within the one building, we have three quite distinctive areas,” Back added.
Overall the venue only has seating for 75 people, so making the most of the space was an important consideration.
“The way we’ve maximised the space is by giving areas for lots of different functions of what you want from a pub. If you want to sit down and read the paper in the pub or you want to come in for a quick meal, we have all of those aspects,” Back described.
With heritage such a big feature of the UK pubs that inspired the Lion & Wombat, Machin had to take on the task of making the brand new venue feel lived in, as if the décor had been collected over the years.
“It’s all about layering. It helps having an older venue, because you’ve got some of that layering already there. We’ve been working towards this for a while, so I have been collecting things and just waiting for them to come in handy,” she said.
As well as extensive experience managing venues back in the UK, Back worked with Melbourne’s own Stomping Ground Brewery, with periods managing both the Taphouse and the Collingwood brewhouse. Stomping Ground beers dominate the taps at the Lion & Wombat, including a specially brewed Wombat Draught exclusive to the venue.
The British influence is most evident in the food offerings, with a menu featuring many British pub staples.
“We have got some old classics on there. We’ve got a Scotch egg. We’ve got a fish finger sandwich, stuff that will remind you of your childhood. The general menu has a British slant, using the best Australian produce. We’re really pushing towards that seasonality with our menu,” said Back.
The Sunday roast has been a flyaway favourite.
“Expats are hugely getting on board as well. I think we must be on one of the Facebook groups. They will come well across town for the Sunday roast,” Machin laughed.
With Britpop playing on Fridays and inventive cocktails such as the gin-based Cuppa Tea or the marmalade-laden Paddington, Machin said the pair wants to have fun with the venue. The concept has been a success, and Back and Machin have already started to notice familiar faces returning to the pub.
“We wanted to create a local and it’s amazing how much we already have regulars that pop in once a week or once every couple of weeks to support us,” Back enthused.