It's True: Byron Bay Has Some of the Best Cooking in Australia
A wave of new restaurants is drawing a group of boho explorers to the surfers’ haven of Byron Bay.
“CHOCOLATE YOGA,” reads the poster. “Explore the mystery.” It’s selling a mix of kundalini yoga and ritualistic Mayan hot-cocoa consumption at a pop-up studio, timed to celebrate the full moon in Libra. This, more than anything, sums up Byron Bay, a small Pacific coast town at Australia’s easternmost point, 75 minutes north of Sydney by plane.
For decades, it has been a wave-riders’ mecca and a byword for Aussie counterculture. But the region’s surfer-Zen vibe is giving way to a serious culinary renaissance. Now, Byron Bay is luring those who would rather eat 10-course meals than perfect their downward dog—though at most local spots, both types are welcome.
Thanks to its varied terrain and a wealth of microclimates, Byron Bay and the hamlets that surround it—Mullumbimby, Brunswick Heads, Cabarita Beach—comprise one of Australia’s most bountiful corners. Visit any of the five greenmarkets in the area and you’ll find sustainably harvested seafood, locally made cheeses and salumi, heirloom fruits and vegetables, and freshly roasted coffee. Dozens of chefs and producers are making the pilgrimage from Sydney, Melbourne, and beyond, tempted by the promise of cleaner, greener, slower living—and staying for quality ingredients from the nearby bays and hinterlands. “There’s been a steady stream of talent moving here,” says Sarah Swan, a 15-year veteran of Neil Perry’s legendary Rockpool restaurant, in Sydney, and the co-owner of 100 Mile Table, a café and catering operation in Byron Bay that specializes in eccentric culinary events (like a Christmas dinner held in July). Here, chefs travel no more than a few miles to source what they use, and in some cases they’re doing the farming themselves.
Luckily for the visiting epicurean, the area’s surf shacks and beach bungalows now have company in Halcyon House (Doubles from $402), a stylishly renovated motel right on the ocean; its 21 rooms are individually designed with handpicked antiques and vibrantly patterned fabrics. The property also has a restaurant run by a Noma alum—further evidence of the region’s rising culinary profile.
Three Blue Ducks
You’ll find the essence of Byron Bay’s new food movement at Three Blue Ducks, a supersize spin-off of the successful restaurant of the same name in Sydney’s Bronte Beach. Opened in March, it is the latest addition to an ambitious, constantly growing artisan complex called the Farm, which includes a florist, a fitness camp, a permaculture workshop, a yoga studio, and a particularly good bakery. The 86-acre property also has a free-range-chicken farm, a macadamia orchard, and an Argentinean-style grill. But what chefs Mark LaBrooy and Darren Robertson are most excited about are their rainwater tanks and pumping paddocks, which form an almost closed loop for water use. At the open-air restaurant, the surf-loving chefs’ brand of locavorism yields dishes like blackened green beans with spicy peppers, shallots, and lemon—all from the farmers’ market—or creamy pâté of chicken livers with toasted country bread and indigenous Davidson plums. Entrées $18–$29.
Milk & Honey
A 15-minute drive inland, the sleepy hamlet of Mullumbimby—hometown of rapper Iggy Azalea and a small but well-established farming community—lays claim to the region’s best weekly greenmarket and the finest wood-fired pizza between Sydney and Brisbane, made at buzzy trattoria Milk & Honey. Chef Timmy Brebner, an alumnus of Sydney’s iconic white-tablecloth spot Tetsuya’s, focuses on classic flavors with a twist. His signature pie, topped with locally made salumi and house-dried bottarga, is a salty smash. He also uses his custom oven to roast beef bones for marrow-smeared crostini and to char vegetables for hearty sides like broccoli with tamari and almonds. Pizzas $15–$17.
You’ll know you’ve reached this quirky café five minutes from the heart of Byron Bay when you spot the surfer- and backpacker-filled trailer park next door. Here, in a series of old shipping containers decorated with vintage record players and salvaged wood, baristas brew single-estate organic coffee and whip up smoothies with almond milk, turmeric, and cacao. Don’t overlook the gluten-free riff on Australian avocado toast: it comes on a corn arepa piled high with microgreens and grilled citrus. Sunrise Blvd., Byron Bay; no phone; entrées $7–$13.
The dining room of Halcyon House’s sceney restaurant dazzles in a palette of Palm Springs–meets–Bondi Beach blues and whites (ikat lampshades, chevron-striped chairs, marine-colored tomes). The glamorous crowd that gathers there nightly for hot smoked oysters and glasses of crisp Australian Riesling is just as meticulously styled. In the kitchen is celebrated chef Ben Devlin, who has created a casual yet inventive menu. He wraps the day’s catch—usually cod or dusky flathead fish—in sheets of tree bark to keep it juicy on the grill, then serves it with caramelized onions and seaweed. His rendition of spanner crab, a sweet, local crustacean, is prepared with macadamia milk and lemon. If you come by day, sit outdoors and order the king-prawn sandwich— it’s pretty much the last word in poolside dining. Entrées $18–$32.
100 Mile Table
The setting, an industrial-looking kitchen hidden among garages and workshops, doesn’t quite fit the Byron Bay stereotype. And the best dish at this café—a toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich called a “jaffle”—seems to contradict the health-nut fixations of local residents. But the place is hopping. So what’s between the bread? Glazed Farmgate ham, tender braised leeks, turmeric-yellow pickles, or a combination thereof. Sandwiches from $5.
The township of Brunswick Heads (population 1,636) now has one of the most experimental restaurants in the country. At Fleet, a tiny space with a cool concrete bar and wood-paneled ceilings, chef Josh Lewis—a recent Melbourne transplant—is committed to spotlighting ingredients that other chefs might discard, like whey and crab shells. And the sommelier, Astrid McCormack, focuses on non-traditional winemakers. Their approach isn’t preachy, just delicious. An adventurous night around Fleet’s 15-seat bar, for instance, could range from crisp shrimp heads with corn sauce and Yarra Valley rosé to pickled oysters with Veneto Prosecco or lamb breast with brussels sprouts, cheese-rind oil, and a glass of South Australian Mourvèdre. “We are incredibly blessed,” says McCormack of their producers, who source ingredients from the nearby sea, rivers, pastures, and hills. “We have access to anything and everything in its freshest form. Fish is delivered to us before it heads to the Sydney and Brisbane markets. Josh just got off the phone with our supplier—one of his guys is putting his sardine nets on the boat tonight, so with any luck we’ll have a fresh catch tomorrow. What more can a chef ask for?” Entrées $7–$20.