The new Byron is small scale, regionally specific, high end, ambitious. Outsiders might still blow in for MardiGrass in nearby Nimbin but they'll order a craft beer, orange wine or single-estate mescal on the side. They want their avocados smashed, and their lentils locally grown. Their kale should be gently rubbed with olive oil, their chicken hand-reared and blow-dried. To be sure, there's money coming into them hills, and no one's afraid to spend it. Especially when it comes to the snacks.
Local coffee takes a step up with the addition of Table View. Marc and Allen Shubitz, two ex-Sydney baristas, have opened in Brunswick Heads offering the kind of coffee nerdery rarely seen outside inner-city limits. Folk Kiosk & General Store, just off the highway, bridges the gap between barefoot frangipani fancying and serious cafe fare, while the Roadhouse, launched by ex-Sydney whisky fanatic Dan Woolley, boasts what is easily the best whisky collection on the north coast. Sam Saulwick and Paul Giddings have brought game-changing bread and baked goods to the area with Bread Social.
Newrybar Village stalwart Harvest Cafe's weekend bake days have become the stuff of legend. As have the Japanese hand rolls from Doma Cafe, hidden in the hills of Federal. After 14 years working with Neil Perry, Sarah Swan upped stumps and now runs 100 Mile Table on the Byron industrial and arts estate, making pop-up food events all around the shire. Milk and Honey was taken over two years ago by chef Tim Brebner, whose pedigree includes Tetsuya's, Banc and Raymond Blanc. Suddenly there's bottarga on a Mullumbimby pizza menu. It's cross-town-for-it-good, too.
The most talked about highlight on the smallest scale, though, is Fleet, a 22-seat restaurant and wine bar so tiny it doesn't even have a cool room. Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis (both of defunct regional Victorian restaurant Loam) are offering something never before seen in the area: a fine-dining attitude with a sense of place and a left-of-centre wine list applied with small-town smarts.
It's a tasting menu here, and at 5.50pm there's not a seat in the house. Who can blame Brunswick Heads when there are lightly pickled Angel oysters served with ribbons of raw choco? The lightness, the perfect balance, the big mouthful of surf. And then there are prawn legs. Yep, deep-fried prawn legs (eat them backward to avoid choking – mmm danger) with sweetcorn custard and a charred spring onion.
There's secret cheese and a grilled rib of salted cos lettuce with a hefty shower of fresh white pepper. A chicken wing, boned and confited, makes pals with tiny octopus tentacles refreshed with thin slices of kohlrabi. But it's the bottle squid – tiny, tender babies that've been lightly sous vide – with braised bitter greens and herbs cooked down into a deep, verdant goo that we can't stop thinking about. That, and a wedge of custard, blackened with a blowtorch till it's sticky, served with simply with thin slices of unadorned fresh fig.
On a much grander scale, look to Bronte's surf star chef collective, the Three Blue Ducks. They recently leased a chunk of Tyagarah land, creating The Farm, an ambitious project that's part restaurant, part foodstore, part farm, and all local, down to the take-home bone broth and organic tampons.
From the side of the road, you can watch the team work the land like a long-haired-and-salty daisy chain gang. They're not even relying on town water to run the place, having jiggered all sorts of tricky ways to capture 280,000 litres of rainwater, used to water crops and customers. They're butchering their own meat, brewing kombucha, rearing livestock, growing macadamias. It's like Jonestown for the upwardly mobile. Whatever else they're planning (today, cooperative farming, tomorrow, mass weddings), the fact is if chefs Mark LaBrooy and Darren Robertson did start a cult (Church of the Latter Day Tousle-Haired Babes?) they'd have quite a following.
Despite the 90-hour work weeks, they look like a pair of guys who know they've made the right decision. "There's been a lot of yelling, hugging and crying," says Robertson, who, despite the sea change is probably surfing less than ever, now he's a farming chef partly responsible for 34 hectares of land, 300 free-ranging chickens, a murder of crows picking at fallen macadamias in the nut orchard, 28 head of cattle and a herd of 18 Berkshires.
"What's happening for me personally here is affecting the level of respect I have for the produce that is coming through this kitchen," says LaBrooy while we're hanging out by the pigs, who are happily digging their snouts into the rich, fecund soil that also boasts a crop of sorghum swaying gently in the breeze. "To understand how hard it is to do some of these things. I remember the day Daz came in with all the leaves from the sweet potato. I was like 'f---, you can eat these?' They're really beautiful and tasty. It's not that the product's not available to eat, it's just that the farming techniques employed traditionally turn everything up and those leaves get destroyed."
Eventually, the goal is to have their chefs – who have come from as far as Bowral's Biota to work on The Farm – spend four days in the kitchen and one day on the land. "We've always said 'you can teach somebody to cook, but you can't teach someone to be a good guy'," says Robertson. "We've been really lucky and have an amazing pedigree of chefs working for us."
They're far from getting high on their own supply when it comes to running their own restaurant, but what they have noticed is the response from local farmers – the next-gen guys who find it hard to penetrate the farmers' markets – are now supplying straight to the Ducks. And they can afford to take anything they're offering. At the moment, the kitchen is doing upwards of 900 covers on a busy day – the sort of numbers they'd never experienced in their little Bronte cafe – there's even coach parking and a children's playground.
This is menu by the minute. Robertson and LaBrooy talk about not using onions because there's none available in the area at the moment (they have a rule of only using products within a 500-kilometre radius). "We almost had a punch-up over those onions," says LaBrooy. But they shrug, and use shallots instead. They can't get local avocados right now, either. So there's no avocado toast. That's a controversial move in the Northern Rivers. "But imagine how good they'll taste when we can finally get them."
This is a group of really dedicated professionals doing something solid they believe in. And that's reflected on the plate.
Pimentos de padron are sauteed off with local green beans, olive oil and salt. Duck liver pate spliced with crisp shards of chicken skin, and hunks of roasted bread hides a crimson shock of Davidson plum jam. It's lovely stuff – gutsy, but still refined and elegant in its execution. Slices of pure, clean-tasting raw mackerel is given a tropical treatment of soft pawpaw chunks spiced up with a really nicely balanced dressing of green onion, coriander and chilli.
The dream, of course, is to be catching a lot of their own seafood, with their own boat. "Every time I feel bad," says LaBrooy, "I go into the cool room, take a deep breath and look at the fish."
100 Mile Table 8 Banksia Drive, Byron Bay
Doma Cafe 3-6 Albert Street, Federal
Fleet 2/16 The Terrace, Brunswick Heads
Folk Kiosk & General Store Lot 1/399 Ewingsdale Road, Byron Bay
Harvest Cafe 18-22 Old Pacific Highway, Newrybar
Milk and Honey 5/59a Station Street, Mullumbimby
Roadhouse 6/142 Bangalow Road, Byron Bay
Table View 30 Mullumbimbi Street, Brunswick Heads
Three Blue Ducks at The Farm and Bread Social 11 Ewingsdale Road, Ewingsdale