The far north coast of New South Wales has long been known as “the land of milk and honey”. It has surprised me that Byron Bay – the great northern playground - has taken so long to become a true, foodie destination. The local Arakwai Aboriginal people named the area Cavvanbah, meaning meeting place and it was traditionally a place of healing and fertility. In Byron you could always eat beautiful, healthy food, but it hasn’t been until recent years that the food culture has blossomed.
I’ve been visiting Byron since I was 13 on holidays with my parents and then on surf trips with mates as soon as we got our driver’s license. You could always get a Humble Pie or a decent pub meal at The Rails, but the true Sydney and Melbourne foodie scene hadn’t transported.
I remember in the 80s there was a great health food place called Munchies and a fabulous burger joint on the main drag call the Rib Cage, with great teriyaki steak burgers and pinball machines.
Recently, I spent a week on the far North Coast and hung out mostly around Brunswick Heads. Brunswick has that classic old school Australian coastal town feel with the camping ground, classic old school motels like The Sails, the massive pub, the fishing bridge and even the local show for kids. The old picture house was recently rebooted by two guys from Melbourne and it recaptures an old school community and holiday vibe perfectly.
I don’t think Brunswick is the new Byron, but it sure is more mellow. It’s still kind of untouched and has a lot of potential, as long as the developers don’t ruin it.
It wasn’t really until The Godfather Steven Snow opened Fins on the Brunswick River in the 90’s, that people in the big smoke took notice of Northern Rivers cooking. Great places have sprung up in recent years like Milk and Honey, the pizza place in Mullumbimby, Harvest at Newrybar and of course, then The Farm - with their handsome-Bronte-Boy-PR juggernaut.
Some great chefs have cooked at Rae’s at Wategoes and Dave Moyle (Franklin in Tassie and soon to open LongSong above Longrain Melbourne) cooked briefly at The Beach Hotel. But the region wasn’t a draw for top chefs. There are some great cafes now Top Shop, Bay Leaf and Folk in Byron Bay, but circa 2017, thanks to population increase and more money, there’s a new proliferation of cafes and restaurants. There’s a lot more variety for a start. Single origin coffee, original inventive cooking with local ingredients like at the Japanese joint Doma in Federal and places like Fleet which is world class.
Fleet opening up two doors down from the Centrelink in Brunswick Heads, is now a beacon in the area, along with Fins at Kingscliff and Paper Daisy at Cabarita. I ate a late lunch at Fleet with my besties and loved it. There was no clutter on the plate, every element was perfectly balanced.
The way Chef Josh Lewis takes Asian and Mediterranean elements and integrates them in a modern Australian way with restraint, is just superb. Case in point the bug tails cooked in the half shell with pureed peanut and split coriander seed: A riff on satay prawns that Hendrix would be proud of.
The wine list is also balanced with everything available by the glass, as well as bottle. The list was only small, maybe 15-20 still wines, but that was ideal. And it wasn’t a total, trend-driven, natural wine list either.
So now you’ve got great tropical produce via the incredible volcanic soils; amazing sustainable seafood; a mature and now diverse dairy industry; Bangalow Pork and dozens of small farms supplying the incredible Farmers Markets and eateries of the area. The market scene has become one of the best in the country. With weekly markets at Mullum, Byron, Bangalow and New Brighton offering food that's noteworthy, sustainable and local.
I think now Byron, Bruns and the Hinterland are totally nailing their regionality and claiming their place in the Australian food scene. There’s so much quality and quantity, I am salivating writing this.