Iconic girl & the fig celebrates 25 years

The founders of the Wine Country mainstay share favorite recipes from over the years.|

In 1997, arugula wasn’t exactly a household word.

The peppery green is the foundation of the signature salad at girl & the fig, the iconic Wine Country restaurant Sondra Bernstein and John Toulze opened 25 years ago this month.

Back then, that arugula salad often needed an explanation, according to Bernstein.

“One in five people would ask what it was,” she said last week, sitting inside the sunny Sonoma Plaza cafe that’s become a destination for tourists and celebrities and a point of pride for locals.

Now celebrating 25 years, the restaurant is in rarefied air. It has survived multiple wildfires, recessions and a pandemic, not to mention the incredibly long odds of surpassing five years in business — the average lifespan of a restaurant.

Recently at the restaurant, Toulze and Bernstein reminisced about the early days of their original Glen Ellen bistro (where the fig cafe is located now; the girl & the fig restaurant relocated to downtown Sonoma in 2000) and the road to a quarter century of partnership through good times and challenges.

Showcase Sonoma first

When Bernstein was 37 and Toulze just 23, the former Viansa co-workers launched an audacious plan to open a Provencal-inspired eatery on a shoestring budget, doing most of the renovation and decor themselves. They found a fixer-upper restaurant in Glen Ellen and put in the requisite elbow grease to get it open.

“I wanted to do everything I wanted to do. I wanted to experiment without guests dictating what we were,” said Bernstein of the earliest days of girl & the fig. Funded by her brothers, the restaurant opened with just 17 employees.

“Some of my fondest memories were in Glen Ellen. It was a passion project with a bunch of friends,” she said. “Everything we (bought for the restaurant) was second-, third- or fourth-hand.”

That initial Glen Ellen restaurant is also where many of the dishes so closely identified with Toulze and Bernstein’s California-French cuisine were first served, from pastis-scented steamed mussels to cheese and charcuterie boards, fig salad and pan-seared duck breast.

Bernstein always has been the face of the restaurant, while Toulze managed the kitchen and operations with quiet diligence. That balance has worked for them over the decades.

“The ethos that Sondra set was that we live in a bountiful place. Let’s show that off,” Toulze said.

That was still a fairly radical idea in rural Sonoma County at the turn of the millennium. Though chefs like John Ash and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse had initiated the farm-to-table movement in Northern California decades before, buying ingredients directly from local farmers was rare.

“Remove yourself 25 years. Here we thought we would buy fresh farm ingredients for our restaurant. That was revolutionary,” said Toulze of the concept of direct-from-the-farm sourcing.

“I wasn’t really thinking of this as a movement,” Bernstein said.

“But it’s always resonated with you,” Toulze added. “The foundation of the girl & the fig has always been authenticity, seasonality and simplicity.”

Coming to the table

Their business grew quickly, to a sometimes-breakneck pace, as diners were introduced and developed an affinity for what girl & the fig offered.

“We grew from nothing to insanity, with 800 to 900 covers a day on the weekends and 60 employees per day on the busiest days,” Bernstein said.

With the move from Glen Ellen to their downtown Sonoma location, they gained a full bar, enclosed patio and high critical praise.

The restaurant got even more traction, but Toulze and Bernstein wanted to retain the French concept of a leisurely repast as the touchstone of their dining experience. Because of that, the girl & the fig always has been a place to slow down, savor a glass of wine or an aperitif and enjoy food and friends at a laid-back pace.

Bernstein and Toulze have curated their menus to include multiple small courses — appetizers, salads and mid-meal cheese plates — to foster the Continental ideal.

Throughout their partnership, Bernstein left most kitchen operations to Toulze and enjoyed focusing on the larger hospitality vision of welcoming guests, creating a memorable environment and running retail operations.

“I went into restaurants, but I always wanted to do retail,” she said. In 2003, the duo launched figFOOD, allowing patrons to bring the restaurant experience home with artisan products such as fig jams, chutney, vinegar and herb blends. The items are for sale at both restaurants and in some local stores, including Oliver’s Markets.

Toulze and Bernstein’s first cookbook, “the girl & the fig cookbook,” was published in 2004, encompassing more than 100 of the most-loved recipes from the restaurant. In 2011, they published “Plats du Jour” with recipes, wine pairings and seasonal menus.

Bernstein’s insatiable curiosity also led her to become an evangelist for lesser-known Rhone wines of California at a time when cabernets and chardonnays were more familiar to people. The restaurant was the first in Sonoma County to introduce an all-Rhone wine list in 1997, including food-friendly varietals like syrah, grenache and Mourvedre.

Toulze followed his own curiosity, too. In 2008, he took a deep dive into the art of curing meats and created an in-house charcuterie for the restaurant, including pancetta, prosciutto and salami. Girl & the fig’s charcuterie boards still include Toulze’s artisan meats.

Critics at the Michelin Guide have taken notice over the years, repeatedly naming girl & the fig as a Bib Gourmand for its approachable menu and value.

“At the end of the day, the reason (the girl & the fig) works is because of Sondra’s authenticity,” Toulze said. “She's the same person on the street, at home or here. Sondra is an explosion of creativity.”

The future

As for most Sonoma County restaurateurs, the past five years have brought a series of challenges for Toulze and Bernstein.

As wildfires ripped through parts of the Sonoma Valley in 2017, Bernstein helped coordinate local efforts to feed townspeople and collaborated with San Francisco chefs for meals for local families. She and Toulze were instrumental in providing for locals during the pandemic, despite ongoing health mandates and having to lay off many of their long-term staff at the height of the lockdown.

Bernstein has used her creativity to engage with the community in other ways, too. She created the nonprofit FIG Foundation to help aspiring food, agriculture and wine entrepreneurs in 2017, and she launched a long-running podcast and newsletter called the Fig Chronicles. She has also mentored more than 240 staff members.

“We’ve had our ups and downs. The stress levels are so intense, and you have to believe in what your partner is doing,” Toulze said. “Even if I disagreed with some of her ideas, I believed in Sondra. We’ve had some tough times, and sometimes we’ve both wanted to walk away, but we didn't.”

Before the pandemic, Bernstein had planned to pull back from the day-to-day running of the business, but she stayed on to help Toulze and the staff keep the restaurant afloat. On March 1, 2021, she announced she would take a big step back and turn the company’s operations over to Toulze.

“I was exhausted after the fires, the PG&E outages and COVID-19. The joy was gone. I needed to let go,” Bernstein said. She now spends much of her time in a completely different vein — building AI-based art and virtual spaces in the metaverse. You can see her work on sondra-bernstein.com.

Toulze, meanwhile, has stepped into a new role, heading the business operations and being the face of the restaurant as it emerges from the pandemic. He’s clear, however, that the girl & the fig is synonymous with Bernstein.

“I’m not replacing Sondra. It would be asinine to take the ‘girl’ out of the girl & the fig,” he said. “I do have a profound responsibility not to mess it up, though.”

As the the girl & the fig gains steam post-pandemic, re-establishing the restaurant’s culture has been challenging, Toulze said.

“We had to lay off so many people (during the pandemic), and there is a displacement that many people don’t see,” he said. The girl & the fig lost longtime employees who had been with them for decades, going from more than 200 employees to a skeleton crew during the pandemic.

“We just lost so many people who were a part of all this,” Toulze said. The origin stories must be retold to many new staff members, and the tight-knit culture restitched.

Toulze is cautious about thinking too far into the future. “We have some interesting times ahead. Thinking too far ahead is a fool’s errand,” he said. “It’s day by day.

“People come here and want the same meal they had 10 years ago. I’m trying to give them back that,” he added. “The girl & the fig are the same, and you want it to be the same. Otherwise, there’s something wrong.”

The following recipes are from Sondra Bernstein and the girl & the fig restaurant and were published in the 2004 cookbook “the girl & the fig cookbook: More than 100 Recipes from the Acclaimed California Wine Country Restaurant (Simon & Schuster).

“Many guests have asked me how I came up with the name the girl & the fig,” Bernstein said. “I have certainly made up many stories over the years, but this salad sums up my philosophy of the restaurant.

“The fig is my symbol for passion — a passion for the ever-changing landscapes, the array of fruits and vegetables from the nearby farms and the many vineyards that make up the Sonoma Wine Country. The Grilled Fig Salad, which has become our signature dish, encompasses the Wine Country simply by combining ingredients that are wonderful on their own yet when served together create entirely different flavors. These are the flavors of the earth, of the Wine Country terroir.”

Grilled Fig Salad with Fig and Port Vinaigrette

Makes 6 servings

½ pound pancetta, diced

12 fresh figs, halved

6 bunches baby arugula

1 cup pecans, toasted

1 cup crumbled goat cheese (preferably Laura Chenel Chèvre)

1½ cups Fig and Port Vinaigrette (recipe follows)


In a small saute pan, saute the pancetta over medium heat until crisp. Set aside the pancetta, reserving the oil it has released. Brush the figs with the pancetta oil. Grill the figs for 45 seconds on each side.

In a stainless steel bowl, toss the arugula, pecans, pancetta and goat cheese with the vinaigrette. Place the salad on chilled plates and surround with grilled figs. Grind pepper over each salad with a pepper mill.

Fig and Port Vinaigrette

Makes 1½ cups

3 dried Block Mission figs

1 cup ruby port

¼ cup red wine vinegar

½ tablespoon minced shallots

¼ cup blended oil

Salt and pepper

Rehydrate the figs in the port until soft. In a saucepan, reduce the port over medium heat to ½ cup.

Puree the figs, port and vinegar in a food processor. Add the shallots and slowly whisk in the oil. Season with salt and pepper.

If you can’t find Figoun Apertif, you can use another fig liqueur, such as Sonoma Portworks’ Fig’n Awesome.

Fig Royale

Makes 1 serving

1 ounce Figoun Aperitif

Sparkling wine

Lemon twist

Pour the Figoun into a Champagne flute. Top with sparkling wine and garnish with a lemon twist.

Summer Pasta

Makes 6 servings

This relatively quick and easy recipe incorporates the favorite flavors of summer. Use ripe cherry and yellow pear tomatoes with summer baby squash, such as pattypan or baby zucchini. Use a shaped pasta, such as penne or gemelli, rather than a spaghetti-like pasta.

1 pound pasta, cooked

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half

2 tablespoons minced garlic

½ cup chopped fresh basil

½ cup balsamic vinegar

¼ pound prosciutto, thinly sliced and julienned

5 ears white sweet corn, kernels removed

½ pound baby squash, blanched and cut into bite-size pieces

2 tablespoons Pistou salt and pepper

2 cups arugula

½ cup shaved Vella Dry Jack (or use any hard cheese)

Toss the pasta with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of the garlic, the basil, the ½ cup olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Set aside.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large saute pan and saute the prosciutto until it begins to crisp slightly. Add the corn and saute until golden brown. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the tomato mixture and squash and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add the pasta and Pistou and mix well to warm the pasta through. Season with salt and pepper.

Place the arugula on the bottom of a large serving bowl and ladle the hot pasta on top. Stir gently and top with the shaved cheese.

Bernstein said this recipe, from “Plats du Jour: the girl & the fig’s Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country” (2011), is one of the most popular items on the menu at the restaurant.

“You don’t normally think of pairing tomatoes with watermelon, but peak tomato season is usually the same for watermelon,” Bernstein said. “The two fruits are somewhat similar in texture and color, as well. The watermelon’s sugar content, though higher than a tomato’s, ties the two fruits together. The addition of the salty sheep’s milk feta and a sprinkling of sea salt create a nice contrast to the sweetness of the salad. We use fresh oregano as the main herbal flavor, but it would be just as good with fresh basil or thyme.”

Heirloom Tomato & Watermelon Salad

Makes 6 servings

For the vinaigrette:

1 medium yellow tomato, blanched, peeled and seeded

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon champagne vinegar

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and white pepper, to taste

For the salad:

½ cup feta cheese

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound seedless watermelon, rind removed and sliced into ½-inch-by-2-inch rounds

2 pounds assorted heirloom tomatoes, sliced into ½-inch pieces

2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, for garnish

Sea salt, for garnish

To prepare the vinaigrette: Place the yellow tomato in a blender. On medium speed, add the mustard and then the vinegar. Slowly add the ½ cup of olive oil. Taste and season with salt and white pepper, as needed, and set aside.

In a separate bowl, crumble the feta and mix it with the 3 tablespoons of olive oil.

To serve: Divide the heirloom tomato slices and the watermelon slices equally among 6 plates. When plating, alternate the slices and garnish with a bit of feta. Drizzle the vinaigrette over each portion and garnish with the oregano leaves. Add a touch of sea salt to the salad, if desired.

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