In the midst of the horrifying 2017 Tubbs wildfire, restaurateur Sondra Bernstein responded swiftly, bringing food to a community in chaos. She helped San Francisco chefs organize and transport thousands of meals to Sonoma County. She made hundreds of calls to fellow chefs and fired up her own ovens. She worked tirelessly to feed those in need.
The Tubbs fire was just one chapter in Bernstein’s 23-year-career as a restaurateur, which came to a coda (though not yet a conclusion) this week.
In a message to customers on March 1, she announced she would be stepping back from the daily operations of her signature restaurants — girl & the fig, fig cafe, fig rig food truck, the NoodleSpring pop-up (currently closed), her catering company, cookbook projects and other food endeavors. Longtime business partner John Toulze will take over as managing partner.
It’s been a long ride for Bernstein, who launched her fledgling business in Glen Ellen with her brothers and 17 employees, including Toulze, in 1997. At the time, few understood the bounty available through sourcing from local farms, and few restaurants in Wine Country had become gourmet hot spots. She was a pioneer in making Sonoma a must-visit food destination for travelers around the world.
Though she didn’t mention it in her March 1 announcement, Bernstein’s departure comes a few weeks after the girl & the fig restaurant drew national attention and temporarily closed amid furor over a social media post by a former server. The server, Kimi Stout, said on Instagram she had left her job at the restaurant after being told she could no longer wear a Black Lives Matter face covering. The posting sparked a heated debate that drew both anger at and support for Bernstein, Toulze and their staff.
Bernstein, now in her early 60s, said a change in leadership had long been in the works, but COVID-19 put a hold on plans. The restaurant opened a dining area on the Sonoma Plaza last fall, and since March 2020, girl & the fig has served more than 23,000 chef-made meals to local families and seniors facing food insecurity due to the pandemic.
Over the years, Bernstein has served as mentor to 240 staff, reveled in her incomparable Rhone wine selection, launched a podcast and founded the Sonoma FIG Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping aspiring entrepreneurs in farming, food and wine. She will continue to manage the foundation.
The controversy last month may not be the bookend Sondra anticipated at girl & the fig, but it will forever be part of her legacy. Let’s just remember the 23 years of great food, service and local activism that filled the rest of her long, long Sonoma story.
More dining news from Sonoma
Layla Reopens at MacArthur Place: After months of closure during the pandemic, Layla at MacArthur Place will reopen for outdoor dining with a new spring menu that includes herb-crusted lamb chops, cumin roasted carrots, Dungeness crab salad and pappardelle with local wild mushrooms. 29 E. MacArthur St., Sonoma, 707-938-2929, macarthurplace.com