Los Angeles is a hard city to fall in love with. On ﬁrst blush, it’s nothing more than a sprawling mess full of trafﬁc and people trying to make it. That’s second blush, too. And it’s true, but it’s not all the city is. City of Gold seeks to show one of the ways in which some of us have fallen in love with this City of Angels, through the lens of Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold.
Born and raised in the LA area, Gold is an accidental food critic who actually started his career writing about West Coast hip hop in the days that gave birth to Dr. Dre and Snoop. But decades in as a food critic for the LA Times, Gold is now a culinary institution, respected for his writing and treasured for his insight. While Gold will happily write about the newest restaurant specializing in whatever over-the-top culinary trend is king for a day, his real love is ﬁnding and sharing the hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop places. LA has cultural pockets from just about everywhere you can imagine and with gems hidden in strip malls throughout the city, “you don’t have to travel to taste like you’ve traveled.” Just as Gold likes to get off the beaten path, so too does the documentary try to show us another side of Los Angeles, the savory, roasted, delicious underbelly.
And the result is a complete success. Though City of Gold is ostensibly a biopic about Gold, it really turns out to be more of a love poem to Los Angeles. Director Laura Gabbert eschews the standard “born, grew up, personal drama, life lessons, success” time line presentation that many biopics use. The ﬁlm still hits all the important beats of Gold’s story, but they’re intercut into the ﬁlm’s real focus, which is on Gold’s process (from how he experiences restaurants to his editorially-infuriating procrastination), the impact he’s had on some of these small restaurants, and showing why Los Angeles is a (generally unrecognized) culinary gem. Gabbert also skips the expected segments with foodies talking about how much they love how he gives them these new places, instead keeping the talking heads focused on other critics, coworkers, family, and the chefs/owners he’s meaningfully impacted through a glowing review. By focusing on this aspect of Gold’s impact, and by showing us the story of several of Gold’s favorite holes-in-the-wall, City of Gold actually has a surprising air of intimacy.
As the speaker who introduced this film said, City of Gold is not just a documentary about Jonathan Gold, it’s a documentary about food, criticism and Los Angeles. It shows us that you can find “extraordinary food in ordinary place” (if you’re in town and looking for Ethiopian, I can attest to the delicious wonder that is Meals by Genet, a restaurant I tried because of Gold’s review). It shows how Gold’s reviews sometimes give chefs insight into their own restaurants and menus (famous Kogi food truck originator Roy Choi notes that Gold’s review “helped me figure out what I was trying to do”). It makes those of us that love LA feel justified in that love. And it made me hungry. Who wants to join me in trying to plow through all 101 restaurants on Gold’s 101?
City of Gold screened at South by Southwest 2015.