Then a friend told us about the Humble Pie Garden Cafe just off the highway at Billinudgel, about 15 minutes north of Byron Bay. We were heading that way last week, so we kept our eyes open for the turn-off and gave it a try too.
Humble Pie began as a family business back in 1982, based in the alternative heartland of northern New South Wales. Apparently the Garden Cafe opened in 1998, though it's taken me this long to find it.
In my defence though, it's not super-easy to find, because it's tucked away in an industrial estate, close to the Humble Pie head office. Heading south along the Pacific Highway, we spotted the turn-off sign to Billinudgel, but then had to do a bit of weaving around through back-streets to find the cafe. (On our return journey, we realised it's much easier to find heading north.)
The cafe was worth looking for, though. In among light industrial sheds and the like, the cafe complex is large and attractive. Inside, there's lots of polished wood and natural light. Outside, there are green lawns, flowering shrubs and picnic shelters. Yes, the highway is close by (with some spillover traffic noise), but the proprietors have done a good job of crafting a pleasant space regardless.
As for the food -- well, you can choose from a very large range of... pies. And the occasional roll. These include vego options like curried lentil pies, thai tofu pies, hunza rolls and spinach and cheese rolls, and carnivore delights like Mexican steak, chicken mornay, and chicken carbonara pies. You can buy pies and rolls hot to eat straight away, or frozen and in bulk to take home for later.
I had a curried lentil -- my old favourite from uni -- while my husband had a beef stroganoff and my boys chose steak, bacon and cheese. Everybody was happy with their choice. All the pies were $5 apiece -- not cheap for a pie, but these were definitely better, healthier-than-average pies. They were big and filling, and the pastry was a good, crunchy wholemeal variety (but not so healthy that my kids refused to eat it!).
My husband had a coffee, which he found acceptable though not great (this is a man with very high coffee standards), and we all shared a chocolate brownie for dessert. We could also have chosen from lots of other cakes, a Humble Pie apple pie, or a Baskin & Robbins ice-cream.
We sat outside in the grassy area and enjoyed taking a break from driving, and saw lots of other travellers doing the same thing. Many of them had small children, who took the chance to run around on the lawn. We also spotted a large forest-dragon lizard that rustled out of the undergrowth while we were eating. I couldn't resist taking a photo before it raced away.
The only sour note in our Humble Pie experience was, surprisingly, an environmental one. We were disappointed to see that every dine-in pie was served on a large plastic plate that was thrown in the bin 15 minutes later, after the pie had been eaten. We opted instead to ask for paper bags like the takeaway customers, and we've also emailed the cafe to suggest that they find a better option for plates.
Other than this, though, the family verdict was that the Humble Pie Garden Cafe is a great place to go if you are heading along the highway to or from Brisbane, and a much nicer break from driving than a standard service station. Like the Macadamia Castle not too far away, it makes grabbing a roadside meal a treat instead of a chore.