If there's a downside to Barrio, it's probably really only that it isn't closer to my house. You could argue that it would be handier if it were right in Byron Bay rather than north of the town itself in a fancy new retail and office development up near Belongil Beach. But the difference is really only a quick drive, a blissful half-hour walk along the sands of the bay, or a quick trip on the brand-new solar train. Solar train? Just when you thought Byron couldn't get any more Byron, it goes and doubles down on the Byronness.
And though Byron has become more mainstream, it must also be acknowledged that the mainstream, with its yoga pants, reusable coffee cups, meditation apps, gut-health guru, and newfound love of organics, has become pretty gosh-darned Byron in recent times. Somewhere in the hills an old hippie is laughing.
Back at Habitat™, it's a Byron of electric cars, architecturally designed live-work spaces, rich in floaty linen and inspiring hashtags. Happily there's still space in all this mindful co-working and crowd-sourced leisure for lunch.
Grilled beef rib with chimichurri
Barrio is a gleaming open L-shaped thing, a sleek cafeteria carved from honeyed timber and polished concrete. The menus are printed on recycled-looking stock, there's a lush Slim Aarons print on the wall, and cookbooks from Damien Pignolet, Peter Gilmore and the fellas from Porteño share shelf space with La Joven Cocina Vasca by Martín Berasategui and Peio Garcia Amiano's Pinchos y Picas.
The presence of Francisco Smoje at the charcoal grill explains the Spanish-language volumes. The Argentinian-born chef has been pleasing the people of the northern rivers with his food at his Francisco's Table pop-ups, and at Barrio he has found a more permanent home.
His is a vibrant cuisine. The likes of the beef empanadas are lifted, golden and flaky, beyond mere staples by a careful hand and the touch of the flames in the kitchen. Ceviche makes the most of the handsome local catch. Today it's mahi mahi, the chunky dice of the fish more than a match for the hot yellow and red chilli in the bowl, the "cooked" quality of its flesh offset nicely by waxy potato.
The dining room at Barrio
Beef rib has flavour for days and is handled with exactly the assurance you'd hope to see from a chef who cut his teeth in Argentina. Smoje grills the meat to succulence, slices it and then sets it back on the bone with a beautifully rough-cut chimichurri and sweet petals of scorched onion. Outstanding. Chicken is never better than done on the bone over the fire, seasoned emphatically, cut into chunks and teamed with a brick-red piri-piri sauce. Cooking eggplant to total acquiescence in the coals renders it almost too good to be simply served as a side, while a half-head of iceberg iced richly with a sardine ranch dressing defies the odds to become a salad to savour.
Barrio consistently dots the Is and crosses the Ts in a way that makes it much more than a café with aspirations. Service under Dan Wyllie is faster-paced than the local standard, and seems unfazed by the large groups that swarm the place in gusts of Aesop wielding tactical-grade prams. Breakfast is no slouch, either - Cuban-style brown rice comes with black-bean mole, a fried egg and banana, there's eggs, pancetta and roasted peppers for anyone with a surf-grade hunger, and coconut crunch, fruit and yoghurt for the designer-sarong crowd. Dessert? Simple and smart: a shimmering moscato jelly and fragrant poached peach with a splash of custard.
Make no mistake, Barrio is a deeply casual arrangement. It's an order-at-the-counter arrangement, and for the moment it's also BYO. Bringing your own is even more appealing when you get a load of the stock at the bottle shop at the The Sun. If you want natural wine, craft beer and artisanal spirits, you're in for a treat. I don't know how the mezcal range goes down at Barrio, but Ochota Barrels' Surfer Rosa rosé seems pretty much purpose-built for the place.
Wood-roasted pumpkin, brown rice and feta (front); grilled corn; roast snapper, green olives and lemon (back); salami, baked ricotta and pickles (back right).
One of the most appealing things about the set-up is the offer of versions of all this kind of stuff to grab on your way to the beach. The glass cabinet is filled with the likes of little buns stuffed with charcoal chicken, chilli mayo and celery, or roasted mushrooms with rocket and harissa. Bowls brim with green beans, potatoes, capers and dill, or braised cabbage with pears and curly lettuce, while the fridge is stocked with things that tip the hat to the Latin American vibe (guava and mandarin flavours of the Mexican soft drink Jarritos) and others that are merely New Byron (boutique smoked cola, locally brewed kombucha, and other probiotics). The coffee, made with St. Ali beans, alone makes it worth a visit.