It’s been a catastrophic year for Australia’s rural dining scene. First there were the bushfires that tore through towns, filled the air with smoke and closed highways that would usually bring tourists. Not long after, coronavirus restrictions forced restaurants to temporarily close and figure out new ways to generate income. For destination restaurant Biota, which opened in the NSW Southern Highlands town of Bowral in 2011, the double whammy was too much. It closed at the beginning of lockdown, and liquidators were brought in.
James Viles, who owned the diner with his father Iain Viles, says Biota’s peak months were usually January and February. This year, the main thoroughfare in and out of town, the Hume Highway, closed several times during the season, and bushfires ripped past just 12 kilometres away.
“We had fires two towns over, and it really decimated our region in a lot of ways,” chef-owner James Viles tells Broadsheet, palpably upset. “We rely on regional tourism. Our business was 85 per cent tourism-based. So when those fires hit, we took a hit. But we were sort of okay. We were getting through it. And it set us behind, we got a bit worried, but we were okay.”
But the coronavirus lockdown was the death knell for the diner.
“Straight after the bushfires, Covid happened,” says Viles. “It affected everyone, so please don’t think I’m saying we’re the only ones. But we just couldn’t come back from that. All tourism closed, restaurants closed. We can’t just do takeaway into a regional town. It’s just not enough to pay the bills for something the size of Biota. So we had to make a call early on, before we got in any more trouble. And my dad and I, with our accountant, made that call: we wouldn’t see it past 10 years.
“We were doing what we do down there and loving it for 10 years. It was our life and it was everything to us.”
Biota was known for using seasonal ingredients grown in the kitchen garden and foraged from the surrounding area. It also provided accommodation for diners; was home to Bertha’s Meats (a casual, southern-style barbecue restaurant); and operated a pop-up dinner and accommodation venue called Barn by Biota.
The Vileses called in the liquidators in mid-March, and Viles reckons we’re likely to see many more restaurant casualties in the coming six months. As for the future, we’re not likely to see another venue from him – at least for a while.
“I don’t want to own a restaurant again,” he says. “That’s it for me, I tried, I did it. I don’t have the ego in me that says, ‘You always have to own a restaurant’. I don’t think that’s success. I think success is happiness. And for me, I just want some happiness. I just want to cook. That’s all. Wherever that happens, or however that happens, that doesn’t matter, as long as it’s happy cooking.”