Astrid McCormack tells a story about one of the first meals she served at her restaurant Fleet in Brunswick Heads, New South Wales: It was 2015, and Ms. McCormack and her partner, the chef Josh Lewis, had just opened on a quiet stretch of the town’s small business district. At the end of service, a local customer said to Ms. McCormack, “Thank you, everything about this was so wonderful. There goes Brunswick Heads.”
That early prediction turned out to be correct. In the three years since Fleet opened, the town has changed tremendously. I’ve been visiting for over a decade thanks to my father, who lives in the area, and the transformation is drastic. The retail strip that used to be home to a few small businesses is now buzzing with boutiques and cafes; the streets that used to feel sleepy are now often thick with wandering tourists.
Fleet also foreshadowed an influx of ambitious young restaurateurs to the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales, just south of the Queensland border. It’s a stunningly beautiful part of the world, a not-quite-tropical lush hinterland that catches the rain and cradles a cobalt coastline.
The best-known town is Byron Bay, and its cape is Australia’s easternmost point. The area has long been a magnet for surfers and hippies, but in the past decade — as the term “boho-chic” has emerged as a moneyed alternative to its scruffier precursors — Byron has transformed. It is now a place where movie stars own homes and $300 caftans are the new norm, alongside crystals and patchouli.
For a talented chef, the allure of Byron is obvious. The influx of money, brought by people looking for a certain beachy lifestyle guided by good taste, is sure to provide a decent customer base, as is the beach tourism and the many music and cultural festivals held in the area.
But Byron itself is at a crossroads, one in which the property values have skyrocketed while the infrastructure falters under the town’s growing popularity. It’s as if Byron skipped over the part in its evolution where it was exciting enough to draw inventive operators but affordable enough to create opportunity for those people.
And so, a few enterprising people took a bet on the small towns surrounding Byron. This pioneering spirit has resulted in rapid gentrification. It has also created a thriving dining scene that’s one of the Australia’s most interesting and fertile, rivaled only by Tasmania’s.
Ms. McCormack and Mr. Lewis, who moved to the area together, realized that their dream of a small, self-funded restaurant would be far more achievable in a Byron-adjacent location than in the town itself. When an opportunity arose in Brunswick Heads, they jumped at it.
Three years later, Fleet is one of the toughest reservations in Australia; the only booking I could secure was as a single diner, at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. Despite the odd hour (Fleet’s website refers to this midafternoon meal as “late lunch”), the experience was an intensely lovely way to spend a few hours. Ms. McCormack acts as host and server, and Mr. Lewis cooks and plates every dish in the restaurant, solo in the small kitchen but for a dishwasher.
The food is almost simple, but not quite. Tiny curls of local squid come over rounds of yellow squash, with preserved lemon and a deeply savory crustacean oil. Spanner crab is jumbled with ribbons of zucchini and slivers of chestnut, but it’s the sweet, deep seafood-broth-based sauce that makes the fresher ingredients sing.
Fleet was not the first ambitious restaurant to set up shop in a small town in northern New South Wales. A decade ago, I had a world-class pizza at a restaurant called Milk and Honey in the small inland town of Mullumbimby (its biggest claim to fame at the time being that it’s the hometown of Iggy Azalea). Milk and Honey is still turning out great pizzas, and Mullumbimby’s Friday farmers’ market is now an incubator of sorts, where chefs rent stall space to test out concepts that sometimes become full-fledged restaurants.
Town, a cafe in Bangalow, opened in 2011 and serves tasting-menu dinners on weekend nights in a candlelit upstairs dining room. In Newrybar, an ambitious restaurant called Harvest opened in 2007, and eventually added a bakery and deli.
But there’s something different about the most recent crop of restaurants in the area, an aesthetic that forcefully proclaims a regional style. The breezy atmosphere that makes this such a beautiful place to live and visit finds its way onto the plate, as does the area’s history as a hippie enclave. Many of the best meals I’ve had in the Northern Rivers could almost be mistaken for spa food, if not for the focus on bold flavor and intense pleasure.
Just south of Byron Bay is Lennox Head, where Andrew Love opened Shelter in early 2017. Mr. Love came to the area to work as a manager at Three Blue Ducks, which began in Sydney and now has outposts in Brisbane and Byron Bay.
He originally envisioned opening his own project in Byron, but couldn’t resist the location his business partner, Troy Noonan, found in Lennox, directly across from the beach. Most days, weather permitting, Shelter’s walls made of windows are wide open to the salty breeze, with nothing but a few cars across the road obstructing the ocean view.
Shelter serves as a casual cafe in the morning, offering mixed grain bowls and avocado toast alongside the requisite high-quality espresso drinks. Lunch displays the chef Dennis Baker’s ambition and verve, with dishes like raw kingfish with cultured cream, thinly sliced cucumber and a scattering of succulent leaves. The cooling green flavor of the succulent and cucumber brought a new kind of freshness to the fish, while the lightly tangy cream added luxurious texture.
Dinner, served three nights a week, expands on the promise of lunch. Local octopus is sweetened with XO sauce and given a punch of dynamism by green chile. Brussels sprouts are roasted and served with tangy mustard and more of that lush cultured cream. I thought I was sick of roasted sprouts; Shelter proved me wrong.
Farther north in Cabarita Beach, the chef Ben Devlin serves a flexible tasting menu at Paper Daisy, on the bottom floor of Halcyon House, a small oceanside resort in a former cheap surf motel. (It isn’t cheap anymore: A room for the night will cost you between $600 and $1,100 Australian dollars.)
Mr. Devlin has Noma on his résumé, and you can see René Redzepi’s influence in the careful construction of some of the food here. But the overwhelming takeaway is one of lightness and elegance: the saline sweetness of smoked oysters under a blanket of crumbed grilled cauliflower, brightened by yuzu and the peppery sting of intensely fresh watercress; or ash-roasted chicken over a swoosh of pine nut purée, with fennel and grapes.
There’s a real sense of place to much of this food, in the use of local ingredients and in the culture of healthy eating that has long been a part of Byron’s dining ethos. There’s nut milk with the salted fish at Paper Daisy, macadamia nut butter under the roasted pumpkin at Fleet and an almond paste accompanying the line-caught mulloway at Shelter. The chickpea purée that harmonizes a dish of shaved yellow squash, sea urchin and calamondin lime at Paper Daisy isn’t called hummus, but it has all of that beloved dip’s rich appeal.
At Fleet, one of the signature dishes could be a parody of upscale-eating-meets-hippie asceticism: A fresh raw radish comes encrusted in sesame seeds with a touch of honey. It’s reminiscent of those chewy sesame candies from health food stores, but the slightly bitter vegetal snap of radish somehow makes it doubly gratifying.
Ms. McCormack and Mr. Lewis have recently opened a second business in Brunswick Heads, a cafe and food store called Ethel, and they’re taking over a local Mexican restaurant. Ms. McCormack says she can’t envision this level of success and rapid growth in any of Australia’s big cities. She feels lucky to have gotten in early; real estate prices have risen sharply in the last couple of years.
But don’t expect that to deter more young, talented people from setting up shop along this coastline. I asked everyone I spoke to why they chose the Northern Rivers, and got the exact same answer: Look around you. Look at this ocean; breathe this air. Why wouldn’t you want to be here?