Destinations

A food lover's guide to the Byron Bay region

The beaches are as magical as ever and the locals just as herbal, but the towns and countryside around Byron are also home to a host of ambitious new eating and drinking experiences (and some plush places to stay).

By Pat Nourse
Byron Bay

Relax. Byron is still Byron. True, house prices have headed well north of a million bucks, a cottage industry has sprung up around Chris Hemsworth, and the density of shops that sell floaty linen and gussied-up camping gear is greater here than anywhere else in the southern hemisphere. But new Benzes and Beamers rolling through town carry surfboards and NO COAL SEAM GAS stickers. And the good news for visitors is that this influx of money has lifted standards, especially where food, drink and hotels are concerned.

At the top end of the business, there's excellent service, beds draped in French linen from Hale Mercantile and well-crafted lists of drinks taking in everything from the outré aromatic blends made by Jared Dixon at Jilly Wines in nearby Clunes to cool things from Sicily, the Loire, Basket Range and wherever interesting wine is made. And the big change in good food is that there's more of it in more places, and it's better and more local than ever.

Local, that is, but Mexican. At least some of the time. This part of the world has long been enamoured of variations on the theme of lime, chilli and avocado, and there's never been any shortage of places to order frozen Margaritas and a plate of vegetarian nachos. But now, in an exciting plot twist, three of the best regarded food operators in the region – Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis from Fleet in Brunswick Heads, Mark LaBrooy and Darren Robertson, aka the Three Blue Ducks from The Farm at Ewingsdale, and the team behind Harvest at Newrybar – have opened or are planning Latin American side ventures. The quality of tequila and mezcal available in the Northern Rivers has improved dramatically, while the likes of sapotes, tomatillos and fresh epazote are seen at farmers' markets with growing frequency.

Combine all that goodness with a wave of new chef-talent, a renewed interest from local farmers in growing native food plants, lush places to stay, the leafy beauty of the hinterland, some great coffee and spectacular beaches and Byron Bay looks more than ever like the coast with the most. Here's the latest of the best.

EAT AND DRINK

La Casita
A popular chips, chilli and chimichangas joint in a fishing-and-caravans town is taken over by two of the Australian food world's brightest young stars: Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis. Tasty things ensue. What was Gringos is now La Casita, the casual Mexican offshoot of two-star wine bar Fleet. Everything you like about Fleet is here, only mostly outside, looser, cheaper and Mexican in inspiration. Expect a hip drinks list and savvy service culture from McCormack, a smart cocktail selection from Fleet partner Robert Mudge and, from Lewis, the likes of a ceviche of local snapper studded with fresh coriander seeds, shellfish oil and avocado, and tostadas topped with chunks of Ballina prawn tossed with chintextle, a nutty, spicy salsa that could be the XO of Oaxaca.
Cnr Fawcett and Tweed sts, Brunswick Heads, (02) 6685 1955

Tacos and frozen Margaritas at Chupacabra.
Tacos and frozen Margaritas at Chupacabra.

Chupacabra
The backblocks of a shopping centre in the Byron Bay suburb of Suffolk Park might seem an odd setting for an eatery inspired by the cuisines of coastal Mexico, but incongruity is part of Chupacabra's charm. What could from the outside appear to be just another fajita place opened on the strength of no more research than a sun, surf and sensimilla Kombi trip to Puerto Escondido or Cancún, turns out to conceal quiet wonders. It's casual enough for local stoners and families to pop in for huevos rancheros and guacamole, or breakfast nachos on the weekend, but nuanced enough to round out that offer with suckling pig or grilled watermelon and pepita tacos. Chef Evan White and manager Amelia Stokes are passionate about their subject and are excellent hosts – never more so than when dishing up excellent whole grilled local fish to share in a DIY-taco situation with hot tortillas and a wealth of salsas and salads.
12a/3 Clifford St, Suffolk Park, 0448 077 401, chupacabra.com.au

Locura
The Ducks are on a roll. The six-person chef collective opened a branch of its signature Three Blue Ducks café-restaurant at the W hotel in Brisbane last year, while the branch they opened in 2014 at The Farm, the 32-hectare complex on the outskirts of Byron, is almost a postcode in itself. Now they've have moved into town (four of the guys live in the neighbourhood), taking over what was once La La Land. If your key impressions of La La's (as it's called by the hordes barrelling down Lawson Street after midnight) are more oriented towards nightclubbing than farm-to-table dining, don't fret: the name means something like "the madness" and it remains a place to lose yourself in the small hours of the morning. The Ducks have added a short menu of dishes inspired by their adventures in Latin America – tacos, corn, salsa – but for now they're working with a bar kitchen and only serving food till 8.30pm. Expect bigger things as they expand the kitchen; Tim Philips, of Sydney's Bulletin Place, is making over the cocktail list in the meantime.
6 Lawson St, Byron Bay, (02) 6675 9140, locura.com.au

Locura.
Locura.

Raes on Wategos
If you were looking for somewhere to point the blame-finger for the wave of fancification that has overtaken Byron in the past 20 or so years, this hotel-eatery could be the place to start. Antony Catalano, former Domain chief executive (and presumably someone with a keen eye for a property deal), bought Vincent Rae's last stake in the business in 2014 and set about bringing the place into the present day. This has involved Tamsin Johnson's design update, the hiring of general manager Francesca Webster from Halcyon House and, most recently, the recruitment of former Attica chef Jason Barratt to the kitchen. And whether it's the saltbush-spiked agnolotti, the vegan take on the roast pineapple dessert, zesty with lime and a spoonful of coconut yoghurt, or the chilli snowpea-sprouts that Barratt serves with his outstanding avocado toast at breakfast, the food is the best it has been in years.
6-8 Marine Pde, Byron Bay, (02) 6685 5366, raes.com.au

Ethel
La Casita isn't Team Fleet's only other Brunswick Heads offering – for breakfast, lunch and just about everything else there's Ethel Food Store, a café-cum-traiteur that does sandwiches and pastries, and pours Reuben Hills coffee, Good Happy kombucha and Baladin softs. Stock up on Martelli pasta, passata and Bunya Red Farm capers ("the best around," according to Astrid McCormack), or leave the hard yards to them and pick up a fish pie, ready to go straight in the oven, or a salad of raw broccoli, raisins and currants dressed with cashew-nut cream.
Shop 2/19 Booyun St, Brunswick Heads, (02) 6685 1343, ethelfoodstore.com.au

Brunch at Ethel.
Brunch at Ethel.

Barrio
Great coffee. All-day great food, eat in and to go. Outdoor dining. The culinary force of nature that is Francisco Smoje, working his Latin-inflected elemental magic on the grill with hunks of meat, vegetables and superb seafood. You won't eat a better-cooked eggplant.
1 Porter St, Byron Bay, barriobyronbay.com.au

Barrio
Barrio

Moonshine Coffee
Barely any food. Barely any seats. Barely more than a (very tastefully appointed) shed. Barely a half-hour drive on winding roads from Byron proper to the town of Federal. And yet the house-roasted coffee will definitely be the best you have in the region, and might be the best you have all year, anywhere. Make the detour.
3 Albert St, Federal, (02) 6688 4718, moonshinecoffee.com.au

Unusual food plants at Harvest.
Unusual food plants at Harvest.

Harvest
Ally Waddell likes to cook. Peter Hardwick likes to forage for native, feral and otherwise underutilised food plants, pickle things and make vinegars. Moira Waterfall likes to pour people unusual and delicious booze. Together they're making beautiful music, upping the tempo at this sprawling landmark eatery. Lately they've started experimenting with extending their Wednesday Wild Harvest menu, in which Waddell showcases Hardwick's finds and philtres, throughout the week. That could translate to blackened garlic scapes with crème fraîche and a charred-kelp vinegar, a ceviche of cobia with sea purslane, finger lime and sea velvet, or a bowl of native passionfruit, simply sliced and salted.
18-22 Old Pacific Hwy, Newrybar Village, (02) 6687 2644, harvestnewrybar.com.au

Shelter
If you happened to be a kid in the 1980s visiting Lennox Head, a small town north of Ballina, to have a splash around in the tea tree-stained Lake Ainsworth, you'd be overjoyed if you got some Redskins and a Bubble O'Bill along the way. Today's children are made of sterner stuff. They make a beeline for this dunefront shack and load up on raw fish with horseradish and pickled rhubarb scattered with buckwheat and coastal succulents. And why not? Shelter over-delivers: the butter is cultured, the fish line-caught, the wines by the glass extending to Si Vintners sem-chardonnay, Ochota Barrels rosé and Jauma Disco Special grenache-shiraz served chilled.
41 Pacific Pde, Lennox Head, (02) 6687 7757, shelterlennox.com.au

Di Vino
Sometimes you don't want to eat fish or chips or coastal succulents or neo-Oaxacan share plates. You want spaghetti, damn it, and maybe a glass of wine. And for those times, this newcomer – already a hit with the locals – has you covered. One of the owners is Roman, the chef is Ligurian, and the menu is pleasingly clipped to essentials such as a classic rigatoni all'Amatriciana and fried stuffed olives alla Ascolana. Wine, meanwhile, leans natural, with bottles from cult Italian producers such as Elisabetta Foradori and Giulio Armani offered alongside those from Australian fellow believers such as James Erskine, Bryan Martin, and Owen Latta.
2 Fletcher St, Byron Bay, (02) 6680 8424, divinobyron.com

Di Vino.
Di Vino.

Pipit
Set to open early this year, this new independent venture from Noma alumnus and former Halcyon House chef Ben Devlin and his partner, Yen Trinh, promises something similar to the originality of ideas and focus on local seafood and green things that won Devlin stars and a great many fans at Paper Daisy. That could mean albacore taken on a spicy adventure, turned into a marine 'nduja and served with green-garlic garum and steamed bread, perhaps, or the sweeter pleasures of black sapote pudding with macadamia miso.
*8 Coronation Ave, Pottsville

Tucker.
Tucker.

Tucker
Here are the magic words: open seven days, including most public holidays, serving Blackboard coffee, roasted by the owners. The juice is cold-pressed, the toast is Bread Social, the beers are Balter, and the crowds are local. "Stoked on our local suppliers," reads the note on the menu. And then some. 480 Casuarina Way, Casuarina, tuckercasuarina.com

Josh Lewis and Astrid McCormack of Fleet.
Josh Lewis and Astrid McCormack of Fleet.

Fleet
Beg, borrow or bribe your way into a reservation. Do whatever you have to do. Fleet has quietly become one of the best loved restaurants in Australia, which is pretty impressive when you consider it seats 14, in a town of 1,700. Josh Lewis does all the cooking almost single-handedly, making his own bottarga to sass-up coal-roasted hasselback-style celeriac, say, or caramelising preserved lemons to provide a dazzling foil for ephemeral curls of local squid. Astrid McCormack rocks the counter service as one of the most deft and charismatic sommelier-maîtres d' in the land, and Rob Mudge ties it all together with cocktails that are as crisp as they are powerful. Beware: Fleet is dangerously habit-forming.
2/16 The Terrace, Brunswick Heads, (02) 6685 1363, fleet-restaurant.com.au

STAY

Raes on Wategos
Is there a better located place to stay in the Bay? Or anywhere on the east coast of Australia? To the uninitiated, Wategos is a small surf beach around the heads from Byron Bay itself. To the initiated it's simply heaven, a place you can't wait to get back to. Raes is a seven-room hotel that opens almost directly onto the sand. It doesn't want for personality, but its recent renovation has peeled back the layers to the essentials – hip, comfortable rooms, obliging service, an exquisite location – while adding appealing new touches such as uniforms by Melbourne designer Lucy Folk and
a cellar bar that opens onto the drive.
6-8 Marine Pde, Byron Bay, (02) 6685 5366, raes.com.au

Raes on Wategos.
Raes on Wategos.

Halcyon House
The danger with Halcyon House, of course, is that it's so very tempting not to leave. Where design hotels are frequently chilly, and furnished with eateries serving food that privileges aesthetics over taste, this former surf hotel ticks all the boxes in style. Anna Spiro's design is plush without ever being mumsy, while manager Mauro Riso instils in his staff a manner that is savvy without being showy. It's the kind of place where Austen, Maugham, Zweig and Murdoch rub shoulders happily on bookshelves with Collins, Koontz, Courtenay and Ludlum. The property also has a kitchen that's all about freshness of flavour and a quiet thoughtfulness that runs from sunny breakfasts to elegant dining to poolside snacks to room service. Give our regards to Elliott, the resident water monitor.
21 Cypress Cres, Cabarita Beach, (02) 6676 1444, halcyonhouse.com.au

28 Degrees.
28 Degrees.

28 Degrees
Few places in the Northern Rivers combine an ultra-central location with privacy, gorgeous aesthetics and comfort as seamlessly as this beautifully designed guesthouse. Low-key where you want it, but carefully furnished with everything needed for a rejuvenating stay, 28 Degrees ought to be the blueprint for beach-house living. The minibar is loaded with Big River milk, farmers' market fruit, coconut water, Barambah Organics yoghurt and muesli from Ballina café The Belle General. The only thing better than owner Deb Garske's eye for detail is her rhubarb compote.
12 Marvell St, Byron Bay, (02) 6685 7775, 28byronbay.com.au