Just weeks after the final embers from the New Year's Eve bushfires flamed out, a new disaster hit the South Coast, and the entire world. As we all self-isolate, the future of the tourism trade in already suffering regions is pretty bleak. But we can help. Now's the time to shop local, support small businesses and book a trip away for when the dust settles.
It's lunchtime on a Sunday and the plates at Small Town bistro in Milton, on the New South Wales South Coast, are coming out fast. Lobster dressed in mayonnaise spooned into warm brioche. Prosciutto topped with peach and basil given a savoury edge with koji brown butter. Yellowbelly flounder dressed with lemon and capers. On the shelves, wines with a low-intervention edge stand proudly alongside classics. It's a fine day and the seats should be full, but apart from one other table, the bistro is empty.
Wind back to August last year and Jo Thomas and Alex Delly were closing the doors of St Isidore, the hatted South Coast restaurant they'd run since 2011, in anticipation of their new project, Small Town, a casual 26-seater they thought would be more manageable for them and their young family. When they opened in late September, the thinking was to build towards the summer. But with the bushfires, and now the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, things haven't really gone to plan.
Milton, two hours south of Sydney, didn't burn. Neither did nearby Mollymook or Ulladulla. But you need only drive south from Nowra to see the devastation – the ground ashen, trees turned black, signs blistered from the heat. While the Conjola area was ablaze, claiming three lives and 89 homes, the nearby towns watched in fear. As the focus turned to picking up the pieces after the fires, any tourist trade had vanished.
In many ways, these towns are the lucky ones, but the summer spike was shot. Over Christmas and New Year, Small Town might have taken the equivalent of a week's winter trade in a single day. The reality was empty seats. "In December, we lost 457 bookings just from cancellations," says Thomas. "Usually we'd have a huge amount of fat on our bones going into winter – this year there's no fat at all."
Small Town is suffering, but at least its size means they can contain some impacts; they hadn't stocked up on produce and staff in the same way larger venues such as Bannisters in Mollymook had. That doesn't mean they're not affected. Their sous-chef, for example, moved back to the city because his partner lost her summer job, and Small Town has reduced trading to four days until they find a replacement. Now, as Easter approaches, they'd normally be building to one of the last busy periods of the year. But that's become harder to predict as people cancel travel plans.
In a coastal town like this, the flow-on effects of a downturn are magnified. If restaurants are struggling, suppliers are, too. Delly says their fruit and vegetable suppliers, The Fruit Ute, have had to take out credit cards to be able to go to the markets. Locale Foods, their dry goods people, have let staff go. Even the locksmith is suffering, he says, because people aren't going to the beach and losing their keys.
But this is also a story of resilience. Locals have been spending with locals. Support from Spend With Them, the campaign promoting businesses in fire-affected regions, saw Small Town sell nearly 100 meal vouchers. In recent weeks, their insurance claim has come through, along with a skerrick of government support. "There's still a huge amount of generosity around town, but we also know that that's going to tire," says Thomas, who says the true hardship will come later. "If I could see bookings in May or June or July, I'd be so happy, but we're not seeing any of that."
Whether they get that far in this new disaster is another question. "[Due to coronavirus] we may be faced with the same isolation as we experienced during the bushfires, and if that happens, the future is not looking too bright," says Thomas. "The reality of the future will be laid bare at Easter."
For us, it means, if we can, making plans to visit bushfire-affected towns in the coming months once the coronavirus danger passes. For Thomas, at least, this means seeing them at their best. "Winter is the most beautiful time here – there's blue sky, it's warm, you can get a holiday house easily," she says. "It's the prime time of year to be supporting the region." This region and every Australian region.
While you're here, visit:
Danielle McKeon runs her wholefoods canteen around the kitchen garden, her chooks and whatever local growers are offering. Coffee is Allpress, milk is of the whole or house-made almond variety, and shelves are stocked with pickles and granola. Eggs and bacon are always popular, as is the polenta with tomato sugo, crumbed goat's cheese balls and garden leaves. Expect to see more leafy greens and brassicas as the weather cools. 170 Woodstock Road, Woodstock, milkhaus.com.au
Bannisters does waterside dining right, matching Rick Stein's menu to sweeping views of Mollymook Beach. Simplicity is the lodestar, with Eden mussels leading into platters of shellfish and Stein's classic fish pie. Suites are beach-house chic while poolside pizza is paired with sunset cocktails. Skip to the other side of town and it's oysters on ice, burgers and rooftop antipasto at Bannisters Pavilion. Bannisters by the Sea, 191 Mitchell Parade, Mollymook; Bannisters Pavilion, 87 Tallwood Avenue, Mollymook, bannisters.com.au
Maker of wine, brewer of beer, grower of produce and host of weddings, live music and a monthly market, Cuppitt's is a hub like no other. Book the restaurant for a seasonal menu matched with their own wines, or watch the sun set over the grapevines with a plate of cheese from Cuppitt's fromagerie before spending the night in their homely cottage. 58 Washburton Road, Ulladulla, cuppitt.com.au
Hayden Bridger has been running his pie shop for17 years, first with his mum, now with his wife, Caroline. Pastry is house-made puff and specials are the stuff of legend, be they the butter-chicken pie or the mushroom and creamed spinach, complete with a blob of Meredith goat's cheese. On Sundays look out for roast lamb pie, served with duck-fat potatoes, gravy and peas, of course. "It's Sunday roast," says Bridger, "just without the cleaning up." Shop 2, 166 Princes Highway, Ulladulla, haydenspies.com.au
This 1870s local has been given a renovation that builds on solid bones. There's a lounge to go with the beer garden, and a menu that puts prawn and lardo pizza alongside wood-roasted meats and seafood. But the taps are the main draw. Dangerous Ales, a craft brewery, runs from the pub and their citrusy sour is as refreshing as their lager is classic. Perfect on the deck with views to Narrawallee Beach. 74 Princes Highway, Milton, themiltonhotel.com.au
Potted palms and bright textiles mark newcomer The Ruse as the bar-restaurant for fine times in Ulladulla. Sharply made cocktails and cold beers match a Central American menu served with harbour views. Try the lamb barbacoa and the fish tacos. Shop 5, 84 Princes Highway, Ulladulla, theruse.com.au
Andrew Gibson won awards roasting beans at Maverick Coffee in Ulladulla before shifting focus to this small cafe, serving great filter, cold brew and flat whites. A line drawing of Michael Hutchence decorates his house blend, and Gibson's own vinyl selection is for sale out back. "He's someone who really, really knows what he's doing," says Delly. Shop 15, 109 Princes Highway, Ulladulla, fb.com/sundaylifecoffee
The likes of locally caught mackerel served with samphire and capers and a wine list that scatters bottles from regional NSW among international drops reinforce Matt Upson's regional focus at his smart-casual diner. Grab a loaf of their sourdough from Empower Wholefoods the next morning, too. Shop 2, 85 Tallwood Avenue, Mollymook, tallwoodeat.com.au
Trading in vegetarian fare, Pilgrims' bliss burger is the answer to post-swim hunger pangs, while breakfast hits all the Aussie staples, including buttermilk pancakes and corn fritters with avocado, tomato and sticky-sweet chilli jam. Shop 8, 9 Princes Highway, Milton, pilgrims.cafe