What else is there to do in Byron besides surf, relax and marvel at the million-dollar beach shacks? Why, eat and drink, of course. AT’s Tom Barclay samples his way around one of the east coast’s most bountiful bays.

Byron’s hypnotic allure is probably at its peak right now. This mesmerising jewel on the east coast is drawing ever-larger crowds and a more varied clientele. The hippies and backpackers remain in numbers but represent a smaller percentage of the overall travelling populace. They now stumble past the well-healed from Europe, Asia, America and Australia, all cleansing themselves of the grimy rat race in their kind of authenticity – earthy but sophisticated, leisurely but efficient, expensive quality. Well, almost.

Rae’s at Watego’s used to be the only high-end hotel and restaurant in town – a mantle they now share with a host of alternatives. Having shelled out $80 for a lobster there more than ten years earlier (it was good), I was off to see what was being offered by the new restaurant challengers across all styles.

Back then, Rae’s and The Balcony Restaurant (left) were the most upmarket places. And back then travel guides weren’t my thing. Today, I’m the annoying guy who reads all the information boards in sight before pulling out two multi-kilo guidebooks to make sure I don’t miss a trick. But how could I review and update the myriad styles of Byron restaurants when the romantic half of my travel party is insisting the guidebooks stay at home?

The solution is to poll the locals and see where they lead us. It’s an interesting experiment – placing your stomach in the hands of the Byron community. My polling includes the taxi driver, the hotel check-in, the lady behind the bar at the Beach Hotel and the waiting staff at several pubs and cafés. And now that we’ve served up the writers’ equivalent of the entrée, along comes the main course . . .

BYRON BEACH CAFE

I love this place. It has all the authenticity I need in Byron – views, open space, shared or cuddly private tables, inside or balcony sitting over that wonderful beach, TV screens showing surf movies, bustling service and non-fuss menus. It reopened in November ’07 after being closed for more than a year and is quickly doing a roaring trade.

It has the best coffee in town. Its location on Clarke’s beach, a stroll away form the busier Main Beach, halfway down Lawson St towards the Pass helps to make you feel removed and relaxed. The menu is a good mix; there are the traditional eggs every which way, fruit and other healthy things for people not on holidays. The eggs with chorizo and homemade baked beans on Turkish is delicious.After a long day on the beach, the cafe also serves up ice cream from its window. That’s another authentic touch. Like most places in Byron, it’s Sydney prices. My chorizo and eggs was $15.

AT’s Verdict // The best place in Byron for Breakfast. Open from 7:30am–4pm daily. Licensed. Clarkes Beach, Lawson St, 02 6685 8400, www.byronbeachcafe.com.au

FISHHEADS

An amazing location right on main beach isn’t the only reason to have lunch here. Fishheads is in fact a conversion of an old bathers’ pavilion. Rejuvenated with superb views up and down the beach and quality art on the walls, the restaurant is one of the best in Byron.

The food is excellent, in particular the Seafood Bouillabaisse, which arrives as though a trawler has simply dumped its entire catch onto your plate. The Seafood Spaghetti is also a delightful revelation as Fishheads does have a tinge of the tourist trap feeling to it – totally underserved. The place also does a mean gourmet sandwich. Busy, the service is quick, efficient and totally out of your way, allowing you to have a great meal with great views.

With our mains $29 each it’s not cheap – but it’s worthy. The restaurant grew from the old fish ’n’ chip shop at the pool and for a less expensive alternative you can still grab a fisherman’s basket or similar and head to the beachfront.

AT’s Verdict // Byron’s best place for a summer holiday lunch or sunset dinner. Open from 7:30am till late daily, BYO only, Jonson St, Main Beach, 02 6680 7632, www.fishheadsbyron.com.au

OLIVO 

In the heart of the main strip, Olivo is a warm, long dining room with a bench lounge sitting on two walls and seating opposite. The specials are written on the mirrors hanging above the long wall lounge and there’s some “acquired taste” art on the walls. The ambience is a little café and probably does the place a disservice.

The excellent menu is relatively straightforward produce arranged in interesting combinations.

Take for example the Sumac crusted lamb backstrap with roasted cauliflower and baby carrots, sautéed silverbeet and hot feta sauce. It’s a delight, but not the highlight. That’s the carpaccio with roasted cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, basil, pumpkin seeds, pecorino, chilli oil and reduced balsamic; it’s so delicate, like a carpaccio should be, but a wonderful combination of flavours. It’s a disappointment to finish. Mains from $26-$30, entrees $15, Olivo is a good value food experience, although the service is a little tentative and young on this occasion.

AT’s Verdict // Olivo’s location and ambience lets it down a little but at the end of the day, judge it for its food – and that’s excellent. Open seven nights, licensed, 34 Jonson St, 02 6685 795

WHY NOT! 

Sharing the main drag with Olivo, Why Not’s highlight, in direct contrast to Olivo, is its day bed sitting out the back. A pleasant breakfast but for the backpacker feel without the grime, an excellent choice. It seemed to be home to an endless stream of Mac-toting barefoot executives and creative types all checking emails.

AT’s Verdict // A good lounger. Open daily, 6am till late, Fully licensed, Johnson St, 02 6680 7994, www.whynotbyronbay.com.au

FRESH 

Also on Jonson St, behind the Beach Hotel, Fresh is a great café with solid café food at the most reasonable prices in town. It’s un-Byron, in that it lacks leisurely ambience. But don’t let that stop you.

AT’s Verdict // A good breakfast or lunch. Open daily, licensed and BYO, 7 Jonson St, 02 6685 7810, www.byronfresh.com.au

DISH

Dish is the one place that every local mentions in hushed tones and highly revered terms. Until recently it shared prestige status with Fins, but with Fins departing for more northern lands, Dish has the field to itself. Its location is underwhelming, on a wide, nondescript street several roads from the beach. It doesn’t have Rae’s superb milieu – dinner by candlelight under frangipani trees on a private balcony overlooking the peaceful and mesmerising Watego’s Beach. Ditto, but not quite as “tick all the boxes amazing” as Fishheads, the Byron Beach Cafe or even the Beach Hotel.

While the location isn’t as marketable, Dish’s décor and ambience are superb, particularly in the bar area. Magnificent woodwork with wall to ceiling wine racks and idyllic day beds all bathed in soft and comforting lighting.

The menu fuels expectations, not with delightful and flamboyant concoctions but decadent prices. You’re anticipating a veritable food opera: three-tenors-plus-Joan-Sutherland-in-a-private-performance kind of high expectations.

My first act is a large slab of rabbit terrine with poached duck egg wrapped in prosciutto. An excellent start, although perhaps not entirely innovative for a renowned fine dining experience. Meanwhile, the romantic half of the travel party heartily enjoys her starter of tuna tartare.

The second act of a trio of pork cuts isn’t overly impressive. The pork cheek is extremely soft but not juicy, the rib’s not as moist as I’d have preferred, and the sauce is a little overpowering for my taste. The ubiquitous pork belly is good. The romantic half of the travel party’s white fish is cooked with care but doesn’t stir the heart like an aria.

I decide not to return from intermission for the third act. The food is good but not exceptional. An opera seeks to leave you feeling something beyond satisfied. I wanted to feel totally tantalised and captivated by my meal, oohing and ahhing at each interesting mouthful – not be left thinking the entrée was good, the main not bad and the highlight was the wine list (which is the best in Byron).

Entrees from $24-$28 and mains from $28-$38 and an ’06 Stonier Chardonnay for $60 left me feeling Dish was a victory for style over substance. The fact we dropped in on a Sunday night does not an excuse make – the prices are the same every day of the week. The service was informal and friendly, if a little self consciously non-stuffy. I’ll gladly return to Dish for its Raw Bar. To recline in the day beds and consume an excellent cheese platter with a drink at an exorbitant price is the quintessential holiday indulgence. For perspective, a glass of French champagne at Raw Bar is $25. The same glass at Icebergs in Sydney overlooking Bondi is $20.

AT’s Verdict // I will return, it’s my job. Open from 6pm nightly, licensed, cnr Jonson St and Marvel St, 02 6685 7320, www.dishbyronbay.com.au

ORION CURRY HOUSE AND COCKTAIL BAR

“I can’t believe you even went there.” This response from a friend who once lived in Byron should sum the place up. Opposite Fresh and the Beach Hotel on Jonson St, Orion is perfectly located to pick off the passing British backpackers who are missing home and a damn good curry. They’ll have to keep on waiting. Orion’s is appealing, opening directly onto the street with its funky red padded walls and black décor. So I go in.

My rice is crunchy. Seriously: snap-crackle-and-pop crunchy. My naan is like toast. The chicken tikka is served with sweet chilli sauce. Chicken korma with a tomato base sauce. The service is very tentative and lost in their pursuit of wanting to know what to do. I spend $70 for what should have been on a breakfast menu.

AT’s Verdict // Snap-crackle-and-pop and toast are for breakfast. Open daily. All day for breakfast, curry served from 5:30pm, cocktail lounge till late, licensed and BYO. 5/2 Jonson St, 02 6685 6828

ORIENT EXPRESS EATERY 

Yum Cha on Byron. Yes, regional Australia has come along way. Being served really enjoyable Yum Cha on a Sunday in Byron could well become the surprise packet of this entire trip. The décor is fairly authentic Chinese with high stools and tables. The selections of teas served in traditional teapots was an expensive extravagance. The salt and pepper squid, prawn and spinach gow gee and chicken congee make for the perfect Sunday brunch before a long day of beach strolling.

AT’s Verdict // A welcome surprise. Authentic, homemade yum cha on a Byron Sunday. Yum Cha served Sat and Sun from 10am-3pm. 1/2 Fletcher St, 02 6680 8808

REMEMBER!
Eating well in Byron is by no means a lay-down mazaire – but there are some exceptional places to eat. A couple not mentioned here in depth would include the Balcony, Rae’s on Watego’s, Cyprus Tee and Red Hot and Green (both on Bays Lane). On the downside, there are several places that are either a trap or price themselves way beyond what they actually serve up. Got to www.australiantraveller.com for our extensive insiders’ guide, and email editor@autraliantraveller.com to share your favourites or insights
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