City of Gold

★★★ ½
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For dedicated foodies, City of Gold is the best dinner-and-a-movie option to hit local theaters since Jon Favreau’s underrated Chef. This sprightly new documentary profiles the life and work of Los Angeles Times writer Jonathan Gold, the first food critic to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Gold made his bones in the eighties by wandering away from the usual high-end French restaurants and exploring the city’s humbler eateries, often tucked away in dodgy neighborhoods or shabby strip malls.

Gold’s abiding love of Los Angeles and its endlessly colliding cultures powers his writing and gives the film its heart. His vivid prose transcends traditional restaurant reviews to become a unique kind of cultural criticism. Even if you’re not particularly into food—or thinky cultural criticism—Laura Gabbert‘s movie is a delight.

It helps that Gold is eminently likable. He’s chill, smart, and schlubby—a million miles away from the popular conception of the professional food critic. He started out as a proofreader for LA Weekly and later covered the music scene, from punk and hip-hop to classical, for local papers and national magazines. The doc sprinkles in these biographical details as it moseys about the city with Gold, who drives his jalopy around L.A. and ducks into his favorite restaurants and markets. We meet his wife, his kids, his brother, and a few frustrated editors. (It’s a running joke that Gold is not great with deadlines.)

Meanwhile, Gabbert provides dreamy interstitial images of Los Angeles neighborhoods rarely seen by tourists, with kids playing, delivery trucks rumbling, and kitchens buzzing with activity. It’s in these weathered immigrant enclaves that Gold finds his culinary treasures, whipped up by cooks who learned from their grandparents.

“What people fail to appreciate about L.A. is the huge number of people who come together here in a haphazard way,” Gold says. “And how the most interesting things happen in those fault lines between them.”

Adventurous foodies will appreciate the sequences where Gold digs into some frankly alarming meals. You’ve got your fried grasshoppers, your deer penis, and your hagfish. In one funny scene, Gold’s brother, an environmental activist, laments, “Jonathan’s eating all the animals we’re trying to save.”

The word “city” is in the film’s title for a reason, and the filmmakers’ undeclared theme becomes evident in the end. All those images of ground-level Los Angeles—the people and their families and shops—are also there for a reason. Gold writes about food, but he’s really writing about culture and community. The film’s accomplishment is transposing the spirit of Gold’s work to the screen. You’d think a movie about writing about food might lose something in translation, but it never does.