Iconic girl & the fig celebrates 25 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.
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