cityofgold-posterJonathan Gold’s restaurant reviews are required reading for people living in Los Angeles. Laura Gabbert’s new documentary, City of Gold, chronicles the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic’s relationship to the sprawling metropolis. Gold has long been adored in his hometown for his cultural writing about LA’s hidden culinary treasures; he was one of the first critics to review small family-owned restaurants in far-flung ethnic enclaves with as much passion as the haute cuisine establishments of Beverly Hills. With a stroke of his pen, he’s changed the lives of countless immigrant chefs, newly discovered by voracious foodies who avidly track his reviews. City of Gold explores the rigor, knowledge, and curiosity that make Gold’s style of criticism nationally recognized. Mapping Los Angeles through his Odyssey-like quests for new food experiences, Jonathan Gold reveals a complex, paradoxical urban landscape that will surprise newcomers and locals alike. Featuring celebrity chefs Roy Choi, David Chang, and Ludo Lefebvre, as well as the chefs and owners behind some of Gold’s favorites: Jitlada (Thai), Guelaguetza (Oaxacan), Meals by Genet (Ethiopian), and Chengdu Taste (Sichuan), Gabbert’s film offers the rare opportunity to discover the true Los Angeles through the eyes of its foremost cultural writer, and most loyal fan.

cricketsI was delighted to recently have the chance sample Oaxacan specialties at Guelaguetza, just a few blocks from my house, in the company of Jonathan Gold himself, a group of reporters, and the director of this documentary. The food was delicious but I’m still reveling in my street cred at having enjoyed a plate of chapulin aka fried crickets. Yum! My less adventurous friends were aghast but my six-year-old son was thrilled at the idea of eating these gourmet insects. I later spoke to Laura Gabbert about her film.

Danny Miller: Did I hear that you first met Jonathan Gold when you won a dinner with him at a school fundraiser?

lauragabbertLaura Gabbert: Yes! He was a parent at my kid’s school and I bid in a silent auction on a dinner with him — I bid quite aggressively on that dinner until I got it! It was over that dinner and a bunch of coffees afterwards that I started talking to Jonathan about the idea of making this film.

I love his writing so much and I constantly refer to him to combat all of the anti-Los Angeles snobbery I get from family and friends elsewhere. “L.A. has no neighborhoods. L.A. has lousy food. L.A. has no culture.” Jonathan is the perfect antidote for that kind of limited thinking!

I agree completely and I also refer such people to Jonathan’s column! One of the things that makes him stand out so much as a critic in L.A. is that his writing transcends restaurant reviews and is just great writing about his city.

Totally. I read him religiously even if I have no intention of going to the restaurant he’s writing about! He knows so much about food — did you ever find it intimidating to eat at a restaurant with him?

Not at all. The thing about Jonathan is that he knows so much but he never brings any kind of pretense or condescension with him. You can ask him questions and he’ll answer very intelligently but it’s not like he spends the whole time talking about the food. He’s absorbing everything, for sure, and storing away details, but he’s not sitting there analyzing the food while you’re with him. As he says in the movie, he “enjoys the music of the meal,” he never takes notes or anything like that as he’s eating. The only thing that was intimidating for me was trying to make a movie about a critic! (Laughs.) I really wanted to represent him well — he does such a beautiful job of presenting this city, I wanted to make sure the film did that, too, to honor him in that way.


I definitely want to visit all of the restaurants that we see in the film, I just drove by Meals by Genet a few minutes ago in Little Ethiopia on Fairfax and am thinking of going there this weekend — it looked so good in the film!

Oh, you should. It’s wonderful and Genet is so great, you should say hello to her when you’re there! I wish we could have included more restaurants in the film, we shot at so many more than ended up in the film, but as you know, the shooting ratio in documentaries is crazy.

Did you discover any new favorites from making the movie that you now go to regularly?

There was this one Vietnamese restaurant in El Monte called Pho Minh that was so fantastic. It was Jonathan’s favorite pho place in L.A. but it closed about nine months after we shot there which I was sad about because I couldn’t wait to go back there. Even with Jonathan’s great review, it was tucked away in this nondescript mini-mall and just never caught hold.

But some of the restaurants he’s reviewed were probably able to stay in business because of him. Do you think he ever feels weighed down by the power he has to make or break a restaurant?

He’s aware of that responsibility but I don’t think he ever brings it into his process. He just focuses on the restaurant and the food. I do know that if he doesn’t like a place, he’ll more often than not choose not to write about it at all rather than giving it a bad review. He’s more interested in finding the really great places and writing about those rather than tearing down a place he didn’t like. And when he does write a review that’s not terribly glowing, he still may point to aspects of the restaurant that are worth experiencing. That’s what’s so interesting about his writing, it’s never a “thumbs-up or thumbs-down” assessment, it’s more about the experience of going to that neighborhood and sampling that cuisine. It’s much more of a cultural piece of writing.

Is he horrified by online sites such as Yelp that have turned everyone into armchair critics?

Jonathan has an interesting take on Yelp — I wish that had made it into the film. He knows that a lot of disgruntled people use it to express their strong opinions but he also feels that it has value. He says that he often discovers interesting places because of Yelp — when he sees that a certain population is writing about a restaurant that no one else knows about, that’s very intriguing to him and he’ll give it a try. So he feels like there’s a role for Yelp in the world but it’s totally different from what he does.

It was cool to get a glimpse into his personal life and to see what a great dad he is. Was it always the plan to include his family members in the film?

No. It’s funny, because going in, one of his few ground rules was that he didn’t want his kids in the movie. I was totally fine with that. But, you know, when you spend so much time with a subject of a documentary, you get to know them really well. It’s an unusual relationship — barriers start to melt away and you build a lot of trust. So after working on the film with him for some time it was his wife who said to me at one point that she thought it would be interesting to show Jonathan’s relationship with their kids in the film. What I liked about that is that it told me so much more about how he looks at culture — listening to him talk to his kids about art, books, movies, and other things and hearing about his own childhood revealed so much about how he came to write the way he does.

City of Gold opens today in select theaters. Jonathan Gold will be at Q&A’s following the 8:45 pm screening of the film at Arclight Hollywood on Friday, March 11, and Saturday, March 12.