A well-rounded discussion about art and culture in Los Angeles is incomplete without celebrating food. Dining determines what neighborhoods we hang out in, how we get around, and how we spend (so much of) our money. With much of Los Angeles - like nearly every major city - fragmented by respective cultural and socioeconomic communities, culinary tradition becomes an essential mechanism for sharing its diversity. Though unlike in most other major cities, where fine dining establishments are the places most lauded and critiqued for having the "best food," culinary praises in Los Angeles are far more democratized. Here, hole in the wall haunts and cheap ethnic food is generally more revered than the haute cuisine, allowing food to upend divisions to be something of a great equalizer. And no single person is more aware of this - and arguably more responsible for this democratization - than Jonathan Gold.
The first food critic to ever receive a Pulitzer Prize, LA Times food critic Gold has set a new standard for reporting on food since he began writing about many of LA's underreported non-white neighborhoods thirty years ago. The cultural communities that have inspired him and the kinds of Los Angeles dining he has subsequently reviewed is the subject of City of Gold, a new documentary that focuses on both the life of Gold and on dining in present-day Los Angeles. The average Angeleno viewer like us might find its repeated use of video montage of LA's working class neighborhoods unnecessary. As if feeling the need to yell, "See?! It's not just glitz and glam and celebrities," it borderlines on overstating what shouldn't even be a question - Los Angeles is a real, diverse, cultural, immigrant-driven city. But overall, it depicts this obvious truth with care and consideration. Insightful and close-to-home discussions throughout the documentary range from whether Grand Central Market is doing enough to keep a good balance of vendors to how the 1992 L.A. Riots affected dining across the city.
For those who wade in the thick murky waters of the LA restaurant industry, there may be some eye-rolls en route. A smirky Ludo LeFevre plays innocent to knowing when J. Gold shows up. An attention-grabbing Roy Choi gains yet another spotlight moment. Gold himself, in all his quirkiness and unruliness, is further revered as heroic as the camera pans to every restaurant's respective Jonathan Gold's 101 Best Restaurants plaque hanging on the wall. Though as far as unassuming heroes go, Jonathan Gold seems incredibly worthy of the title. Alongside celebrating the writer and critic, the documentary does a remarkable - and frankly, needed - good deed of communicating to a national audience that the best food in LA is actually made by chefs like Tui Sungkamee (chef at Jitlada) rather than Wolfgang Puck, the best restaurants are operated by owners like Genet Agonafer (chef/owner of Meals by Genet) rather than some Real Housewife, and most of the best meals are found east of La Brea (or even east of Downtown) rather than around Beverly Hills. It's no secret that Los Angeles has long endured all kinds of projected assumptions, and its dining is no exception. While many myths still pervade, the past several years have been marked by an increasingly healthy evolution of the city's narrative. Through its unique stories and eccentric central character, consider City of Gold another milestone for portrayal of Los Angeles that is thankfully accurate, honest, and heartfelt. •
Written by Ari Simon