Over a 30 year career, Jonathan Gold turned Los Angeles from a place known principally for its innovative and expensive California cuisine under chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Jonathan Waxman, to what is perhaps the country’s foremost destination for vernacular cuisines, highlighting immigrant fare that everyone and not just the wealthy could seek out and enjoy.
But while his foremost accomplishment lies in burnishing his hometown’s reputation in the most enthralling prose imaginable, he was also quite fond of New York City, and spent almost three years here, from around 1999 through 2002, as Gourmet’s restaurant critic. It was a job he earnestly sought, partly out of curiosity as to what it would be like to be a regular restaurant critic, but also to join his wife Laurie Ochoa and Ruth Reichl, the magazine’s new executive editor and editor-in-chief, respectively. The three made a culinary dream team.
He and I began corresponding in the mid-90s after I discovered that his self-defined beat at LA Weekly was similar to mine at the Village Voice. Kate Krader of Food & Wine had given me a collection of tear-sheets from his preceding stint at the LA Times. My mind was blown. He told me that a few years earlier he’d called me on phone and asked for a subscription to my foodzine Down the Hatch, and I’d refused, with the excuse that news of cheap, quirky restaurants in New York City wouldn’t be interesting to someone living in LA.
But I met him in person later in the ’90s, when I visited LA for the first time. Not only did he offer to show me around, but also asked if my family and me wanted to bunk at his Pasadena house, which had a backyard filled with citrus trees left over from what had once been a citrus plantation. “Having the fresh kumquats and grapefruit is great,” he told me, “but at night the rats come out to eat what’s fallen off the trees.”
Like the scholar in the Canterbury Tales (“gladly would he learn and gladly teach”), Jonathan was eager to show us the culinary wonders of less-touristy LA neighborhoods, and the first stop was a birria joint in East LA. I don’t remember the name of the place, but the braised goat was spectacularly flavorful, appropriately bony, and engagingly gritty with dried chiles. It was one of the best things I’d ever eaten. Later, on periodic visits to California, we continued to pile into his green pickup (as we both got older, so did the truck, so that it made little wheezing noises on my last visit in 2016), traipsing the city and sampling cuisines from around the world.
Near the end of 1999, I got a call from Jonathan reporting that he’d accepted the Gourmet job and would soon be living here in the Archive, a blocky red brick building near the Hudson River in the West Village that boasted such tenants as Nicholas Cage and Monica Lewinsky, or so he sheepishly told me. Later, when his family moved back to LA, he lived for nearly a year, off and on, in a third floor walk-up above a Palestinian grocery in Fort Greene.
The address was on Greene Street, and in tribute, he adopted the nom de guerre of “Mr. Greene,” which he used to make restaurant reservations. In those days, he was still anonymous, though he was instantly recognizable, with shoulder length wispy blond hair, pointy black Italian shoes, a belted leather motorcycle jacket, and his quiet, contemplative voice, which increased in octave as he got more excited.
For some of the fancier restaurants he was soon covering for Gourmet (the reviews of which are not online, alas), he donned a rumpled sport coat or suit, with a white shirt and skinny tie. I’d meet him on a corner in the West Village, and we’d cab off to a place in Midtown or the East Side. Like most critics, he was incapable of making reservations weeks in advance, so we ended up eating around 10:30 p.m. or so, sitting alone in nearly empty restaurants.
Places I remember dining with him include Jo-Jo, Esca, Estiatorio Milos, Pearl Oyster Bar, Tavern on the Green, and a brief-lived restaurant in the India Club way downtown, where we wolfed down a four-course foie gras dinner that nearly left us retching. At Paul Liebrandt’s Atlas, we walked out into the night air and took a stroll along Central Park after a meal that Jonathan was later to describe as “a failed science experiment.” (He particularly disliked the inclusion of coffee grounds in one sauce.)
From that era I most remember sitting in cabs with him, stuck in traffic that didn’t seem to faze him. We’d discuss food by the hour, trying to one-up each other by mentioning dishes found in LA or New York that the other city didn’t have. More rarely, I would take him along on my jaunts to Flushing, where we ate our way through the Golden Mall, testing the original location of Xi’an Famous Foods. He thought it was pallid compared to more sophisticated food from Xi’an available in Los Angeles.
Sometimes, he reported pieces about more plebian places for Gourmet, as when he wrote about dining all along the 7 line from Long Island City to Flushing, in a delightful evocation of his own career-making Pico Boulevard piece. In 2009, we recreated one of those epic food runs, covering many miles by subway, bus, and foot for Dana Goodyear’s New Yorker profile of Jonathan. A few years later, my wife Gretchen and I appeared in the film City of Gold having dinner with Laurie and Jonathan at Somtum Der, a Thai restaurant in the East Village.
Jonathan had a theatrical way of tasting his food. He would take a bite, barely chewing it at first, then roll it around in his mouth with his eyes closed, while making a humming sound under his breath. If he really liked the bite, he would open his eyes and make some sort of understatement, such as, “that wasn’t half bad.”
He never took notes, and in those days didn’t take cellphone pictures, either. He told me something that I’ve put into practice ever since: “When it comes time to write about a meal, you’ll only remember what’s worth writing about. Nobody wants to read a list of dishes and ingredients.” And later he said, “We don’t write about food, we write about the act of eating.” He was philosophical that way, as if always examining his own assumptions about human experience and its relation to gastronomy — though never in a pretentious way.
But he loved New York and its cosmopolitan density, and the fact that you could enjoy a bottle of wine and get home safely by subway or car service, so different from the situation in LA. In the intervening years after Gourmet shut down, he would return to New York every year or so around award time, or to deliver an address somewhere, and we’d get together, sometimes with our families.
The last time I saw him was a couple of months ago following the Beard Journalism Awards. We ate at Tbilisi Garden on Bleecker Street, dining on smoky minced lamb kebabs wrapped in flatbreads, composed salads stuck together with pureed walnuts, and cheese topped khachapuri, the one without the egg. Jonathan hated eggs — his sole limitation as a restaurant critic, as far as I can tell.