The problem with Los Angeles is that, from a distance, it’s easy to feel like you understand the city. You’ve seen so much of it on film: palm trees, gated mansions, and blondes; Malibu, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. You’ve heard Dr. Dre rapping about the other side of the city—“swap meets, sticky green, and bad traffic”—and Kendrick Lamar extolling “women, weed, and weather.” You visited with your parents when you were younger. You didn’t like it.
You didn’t get it.
“If you live in Los Angeles, you’re used to having your city explained to you,” is how Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold puts it early in City of Gold, a documentary about Gold’s life and work directed by Laura Gabbert. Gold is not just a native, but one of the city’s greatest ambassadors, somewhere between a booster and a evangelist. Even Angelenos who don’t share his specific culinary inclinations—which prize chicken feet as much as chicken meat—respect his work. He takes the city on its own terms, and he takes it seriously. And he’s made a career out of convincing the rest of us to do the same.
Gold started writing about food in 1986, in a column called “Counter Intelligence” in the LA Weekly. He mostly covered hole-in-the-wall places—“ethnic” restaurants other publications weren’t touching—and wrote about food that wasn’t generally thought to be worthy of critical consideration. Gold has a depth of curiosity that allows his pieces to open conversations between cultures, giving readers a sketch of the context and history of the dishes along with his inimitably sharp, specific descriptions of taste.
I was born in 1987, a year after Gold’s column debuted, but I didn’t start reading him seriously until I had left Los Angeles—when I started coming back and bringing non-natives with me. I had been raised here by transplants, parents who evangelized LA to me with the zeal of the converted. I grew up experiencing the impossibly diverse, thrilling, fascinating life of the city that Gold articulates so evocatively in his work. But when I tried to bring people to the spots I loved—the crappy late-night taquerias, the coffee shop where criminally bored college students would make you perfect milkshakes and let you smoke indoors—their eyes glazed over. It didn’t mean anything to them—or not what I wanted it to mean, anyway.
I needed a translator. Gold—and his Pulitzer for criticism, the only ever awarded to a food writer—was it. Taking food seriously was starting to come into vogue around the time I began college on the East Coast, so having a restaurant critic fill the role was perfect. Here, I could say. This stuff isn’t junk, and it isn’t random. It’s a culture. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense.
Another thing Gold says in City of Gold is, “People not from Los Angeles sometimes don’t understand the beauty you can find in mini malls.” It’s easy to confuse the city’s burnout aesthetic—beige stucco, cracked concrete, sun-blasted days, neon nights—for ugliness. Maybe it is ugly, actually, but its ugliness is so far beside the point. Who gives a shit about tasteful architecture when you’re surrounded by land that’s wild and beautiful—hills and canyons and shoreline?
Gold’s genius lies in part in his recognition that Los Angeles could one day host a sophisticated, critically lauded restaurant scene as good as any in the country—and, indeed, it has begun to do just that. But those kinds of restaurants will always be a little bit beside the point for me. LA is, at its heart, a city of strip-mall gems, places you discover and fall in love with on your own terms. In a city this size, you have to be willing to seek out its best bits. You have to love that the place will always feel half like a secret you’re keeping, and half like one that’s being kept from you.
People here joke about the drives that Gold’s restaurants require—they’re always an hour past anywhere you think you’d want to go. Much of City of Gold’s interstitial footage seem to have been shot through the windshield of his pickup truck, a fitting tribute to the way the city is best seen: at eye level, block by block by block. That’s Los Angeles.
Like all cities, Los Angeles has to be lived in to be known. And Gold has lived here for long enough that his work isn’t just useful as means to communicate with outsiders; it’s how we speak to each other, too. I saw City of Gold in a Beverly Hills screening room, a scene familiar from my Hollywood childhood: burgundy velvet draping on the walls matched to the ugly patterned carpet, fake wood paneling, and plush leather chairs. A chintzy kind of luxury. I went with a journalist friend, and we counted the names of people we knew in the program. (Knowing people is a beloved Los Angeles sport.)
When it was over, we went back to Silver Lake for dinner, to a Chinese place we like. We ran into friends (aspiring screenwriters) and ordered dumplings. “We just saw a documentary about Jonathan Gold,” we said.
They nodded knowingly. “God,” they said. “You must be starving.”