Anonymity is a hallmark of food criticism—unless you’re Jonathan Gold. His notoriety extends far beyond his native Los Angeles: In 2007, Gold became the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for his vivid prose in L.A. Weekly, and he certainly cuts a singular figure—perpetually suspendered, fittingly portly—with a shock of long gingery hair protruding from his freckled head.
They’re features made even more striking when Gold gamely ambles into one of the mom-and-pop Mexican counters or strip-mall dim sum joints that he put on the culinary map. And as chronicled in Laura Gabbert’s admiring portrait of not only the populist writer but the city he loves, that’s exactly how Gold likes it.
With a sprawling scope of the multicultural metropolis Gold champions as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, Gabbert’s meandering documentary covers much ground. Along with talking-head interviews from big-name chefs (Roy Choi, David Chang), exasperated editors (Gold is prone to procrastination) and the immigrant restaurant owners whose lives changed following the writer’s rave reviews, the film mines L.A.’s culinary past as much as Gold’s personal history, from his culture-rich upbringing (before food writing, he was an eye-patch–wearing, cello-playing punk rocker) to family dynamics. “Jonathan is eating everything I’m trying to save,” his environmentalist brother Mark jokes.
What it lacks in cohesion, City of Gold makes up for in its subject’s wit and wisdom, with Gold tossing restaurant recommendations (“That place is famous for boiled ox penis”) and poetic asides (“An aria is like a well-cooked potato”) out the window of his shabby Dodge Ram during the doc’s many drive-along scenes. Gabbert may have bitten off more than she can chew, but Gold helps it go down easy.