Is Jonathan Gold the Last Food Critic Who Matters?
The staying power of Los Angeles’s patron saint.
March 25, 2016 ● 2 min read
“City of Gold” comes out over a decade into the era of restaurant-review meritocracy, where every schmuck with a smartphone fancies themselves a food critic — as old-school, professional food criticism languishes on the chopping block.
Will thousands of reviews ever be a reliable measure of a restaurant’s worth? Do chefs still need a stamp of approval from one self-appointed authority? Either way, Pulitzer-winning food critic Jonathan Gold has managed to somehow remain above it all.
To its credit, the endearing new profile of the man, “City of Gold,” doesn’t attempt to defend the continued relevance of all professional food criticism. (Though it does poke fun at poorly written online reviews for, among other things, overusing the word “amazing.”) Instead, Gold is held up as an individual who offers something far more valuable: a cultural lens to contextualize a thoroughly diverse, modern American city.
It’s not his visceral writing or his impossibly refined palate (the co-owner of Jitlada Thai says he’s the only person — including her family — who can identify the secret ingredient in her Thai iced coffee) that sets him apart. “City of Gold” portrays Gold as a culinary man of the people — food is the medium through which he interprets urban life in Los Angeles, what knocks down the rat-maze walls that can make L.A. feel so segregated and isolating. His reviews boost the culinary offerings of both the celebrated and the disenfranchised, elevating the strip-mall pho joints and taco trucks in working-class suburbs.
The restaurateurs featured in the film, all non-white and mostly immigrants, treat Gold like family. They attribute their successes to his exposure; the co-owner of Moles La Tia goes so far as to say that Gold’s stamp of approval, and the Oaxacan restaurant’s subsequent popularity, gave her a sense of pride in her culture. These restaurants were already popular in their own communities — but Gold used his platform to bring everyone else in. Every restaurant owner has the same chance to succeed: they just have to cook really excellent food.
Gold’s consummate power, the key to his continued relevance — and our continued trust — is his ability to cross into a place that isn’t his own and invite others to follow. By introducing Angelenos to the richness of their neighbors’ cuisine, he builds connections across race and class in a segregated city. By making it his life’s work to find the places a typical diner would overlook, he does what a fairweather online reviewer could never do.