At first glance, Jonathan Gold does not look like a remarkable figure. Instead, he just looks like a run-of-the-mill, fifty-something dad. He’s paunchy, his fashion sense is pretty ordinary, and his thinning hair on top is complimented by a long mullet in the back. However, as the new documentary City of Gold tries to illustrate, Jonathan Gold is remarkable for the way he has married his twin loves — food and his hometown, Los Angeles — into an impressive career.
Gold is currently the only food critic to have won a Pulitzer Prize. However, with accolades or without, critics don’t naturally make for the most interesting documentary subjects. Steve James did a decent job with his Roger Ebert tribute Life Itself, but James had the benefit of both Ebert’s big, volatile personality and his late-life health complications to give that film some drama. City of Gold director Laura Gabbert is dealing with a comparatively low-key main subject, and no life-and-death complications either, which makes her film’s consistent appeal a slightly trickier achievement.
City of Gold’s main recurring image is of the unassuming star critic driving around Los Angeles in his gas-guzzling pickup truck, pointing out various restaurants and commenting on his favorite dishes from each. These places are not fancy; far from it. Most of them are tucked away in unappetizing mini-malls in working-class neighborhoods. The film makes clear that, while Gold knows how to play the food-critic game – dropping in on haute cuisine establishments under a variety of assumed names to see if their fine dining is truly as fine as it’s supposed to be – he much prefers to sample the authentic ethnic foods of the many immigrant communities in Los Angeles.
Gabbert includes interviews with other food writers, who laud Gold’s fair-mindedness and voracious curiosity to explore meals he has never experienced before. But more strikingly, she includes testimonials from chefs of all stripes – Thai, Ethiopian, Mexican – who talk about how Jonathan’s praise often allowed them to grow their humble corner joints into booming big businesses.
Gabbert doesn’t dig too deeply into Gold’s personal life, although we do meet his wife, who is a fellow journalist, and their two kids. We meet his brother, an environmentalist whose pet causes sometimes endanger the availability of dishes that Jonathan enjoys (since the animals in said dishes are themselves becoming endangered). We learn about Gold’s brief tenure as a classically trained cellist in a post-punk band, and we discover that he was sitting nearby when Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were recording their early ‘90s hip-hop blockbusters. We see him wrestle with his tendency to procrastinate, while dodging phone calls from his editors at the Los Angeles Times, wondering where his next article is.
There’s a breeziness to City of Gold that makes the film easy to enjoy, even if it is essentially the movie equivalent of a fluffy feature profile one might expect to find in the Sunday newspaper. Still, the film arguably achieves what it sets out to do: now I want to read Gold’s writing and check out some of the (cheaper) places he recommends.
City of Gold is currently available on DVD, video on demand, and Hulu.
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.