Sondra Bernstein is back at girl & the fig—this time with AI art

After stepping back from the restaurant’s operations, Sondra Bernstein brings her lifelong love of art to the newly revamped Plaza business.|

Sondra Bernstein, founder of girl & the fig, returned to the famed Plaza restaurant last week—this time as its resident artist.

On Jan. 25, the restaurant held an mixer to publicly debut Bernstein’s work; a series of digital art prints generated using Artificial Intelligence.

The images hung in close groupings on the butter-yellow walls in the dining area, while her larger pieces were given ample space in the bar area.

Almost everyone had a complimentary glass of sparkling wine in their hands as they stood in small groups admiring the artwork and chatting. Roughly 100 people attended the event, some Bernstein knew from her days as an owner of the restaurant, but almost none of them had ever seen her work with AI art.

It’s a pivot Bernstein made recently; AI art is a very new field — one that is constantly evolving. The former restaurateur has been exploring the medium and her next chapter in life.

“I think she’s one of the most visually creative people,” said Alison Kilmer, a friend who attended the party. “And this is just a lovely expression of who she really is.”

While she’s not as known for it, Bernstein’s passion for art isn’t new. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts photography, and had her first show just after she graduated.

Like her most recent, that first exhibit was held in a restaurant.

“I remember with a couple friends hanging the show in this restaurant and it felt like such a big deal,” Bernstein said. “Now, it’s been very surreal honestly, this whole experience. I really didn’t do it to show in the restaurant, I just did it to find my next chapter.”

Bernstein became interested in AI art in 2020, just after taking a step back from running the day-to-day at the restaurant, handing most of her business responsibilities to co-founder John Toulze.

After seeing ads online for AI art platforms, she started “playing around.” It opened her up to a whole new world of creativity. Bernstein’s approach to art has always stemmed from a place of playfulness and curiosity, and she loved the newness and flexibility the medium offered. She’s created over 30,000 images in the last eight months.

“It’s very mobile for me. If I have my iPad and a WIFI or internet, I can be outside, I can be anywhere, I can be in bed. So it makes for a lot of ease,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein has always tried to be on the forefront of tech, and says girl & the fig was the first restaurant in the Valley to get on OpenTable, a reservation app.

She also works with other platforms and artists in the AI landscape. She’s curated art through blockchain artist pools, helped build out virtual worlds and interacts with other artists in the digital space.

For so long, she treated the restaurant as a series of “mini art projects,” with its evolving menus, interior deign, launching the foodie newspaper the “Fig Chronicles,” and the cookbooks, which she wrote and designed herself.

Bernstein’s dual interest in art and tech makes this medium a natural fit, but the platform is not without controversy.

She currently uses a paid subscription to Midjourney, an AI art generator, as her main platform to create. The company is under fire following a lawsuit recently launched by a trio of artists who claim such organizations have illegally used images produced by “millions of artists,” infringing on their legal copyrights.

“I’m very conscientious about the ethical aspects of AI, and trying to really understand how that works,” Bernstein said. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and so I’ve been trying to get actual information. I don’t care what anybody else does I just wanna feel really good about what I’m doing. I don’t want anybody to steal stuff, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m stealing other people’s work. So, I’m getting clarification on that.”

Bernstein, a longtime photographer, points out that the first cameras were criticized as a copycat medium, since it created the image by machinery.

With AI, she’s been able to get the results that she could only dream about when all she had was her camera. The process still feels like art to her, but now, her imagination is her lens.

“If you wanna make photographs, you can’t do it without the camera and the camera can’t make it without you — and that’s how I feel about AI.”

When she creates her art, it’s not with a public show or other people in mind; it’s often about having a creative outlet to explore without fear of failure.

“I would have no issue taking risks when I was younger, as I got older, the business got older, I definitely was a little more risk averse. Now I had, at time 400-500 employees, any risk that I would really take, that I would’ve taken 10 years prior, was affecting too many people if it messed up,” Bernstein said. “Now, I don’t have anybody but me. So, if I wanna take a risk and I wanna play with this I don’t have to show anybody. I can have my success and my failures just with myself.”

To have her presence back in the restaurant in this new way left Bernstein feeling butterflies ahead of the debut.

“It was very surreal just hanging, looking at the art, you know like, kind of an out of body experience, and then I was very very anxious through the day,” Bernstein said.

According to Toulze, the only feedback he’s heard so far, is “wow.”

The restaurant underwent some renovations in preparation for the show, including painting the walls a mix of yellow and taupe, a needed update according to Toulze.

“It’s been one way for 27 years,” he said of the restaurant’s design. “The response has been amazing. It’s fun to see people step in and they look.”

More than anything, viewers of the art seemed curious. Bernstein said she spent a lot of the afternoon telling people what the art was and how it works, since many people don’t understand the relationship between the artist, AI and the final product.

She starts by putting words in Midjounrey like “women,” which produce a wide range of results. Often it yields an image that surprises Bernstein, one aspect she loves about this type of artwork. She tweaks her search until she finds the right pieces, selects her options and uploads them into a graphic design platform, where she can refine the look until the image is just what she wants.

“The process of the work defines my finished product, more so than starting with something in my mind, and aiming for that,” Bernstein said.

Even with something as new and unknown as AI art in the room, Bernstein’s return felt familiar. Though her presence has evolved, many seemed happy to have her back.

“She’s back in the restaurant, but the restaurant is the community,” said Pat Meier-Johnson, Sonoma’s 2002 Treasure Artist. “Sonoma is all about reinventing ourselves, and what a great way to do that — with art.”

Bernstein is making only five prints of every piece on display, which are all available for purchase. Prices are marked on the wall, and buyers will receive a copy and a digital non-fungible token of the image.

The show may run for about a year, but exact timing has not been determined.

“I’m gonna keep doing this until it’s not fun anymore, or the next shiny thing comes,” Bernstein said. She’s also planning on traveling, taking her art with her, wherever she can get a good WiFi connection.

Bernstein’s art, as well as a metaverse walk-through of her display at girl & the fig, can be found at

Contact the reporter Rebecca Wolff at

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