This article was handed in 24 hours after a strictly imposed deadline, a good deal later even than my usual tardiness as a noted cliff-hanger. But this deliberate delay is by way of a tribute to another self-declared procrastinator, the incomparable, peripatetic Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles restaurant critic Jonathan Gold who died last Saturday of pancreatic cancer at 57.
A food-loving native of Los Angeles, Jonathan found his bliss in pursuing one of his enthusiasms to shed light on the other. And so, through some 40 years of reviewing, he drove a reported 20,000 miles a year in his truck, while staying mostly within the environs of L.A. and Southern California, noshing his way from nose to tail and munching on everything in between.
Then, after returning to the home he shared with his beloved wife, the editor Laurie Ochoa, he perhaps dawdled a bit listening to some favorite piece of music or fiddled his own tune on a cello. Finally, he must have decided it was late enough and his deadline looming close enough, to begin the agonizing task of writing it all down. That last part, of course, is the worst: paying the piper for hours of paid indulgence and trying to recall details, since Jonathan did not take notes during a meal.
Once he began, he came up with mellifluous, sincere prose as he tried to introduce his readers to the rich diversity of their own sprawling metropolis. He realized many might not actually go to one of his colorful dives to eat, but they would at least begin to understand and, hopefully, appreciate the scope of the humanity in this sun-drenched, freeway-laced city. There in the taquerias, cantinas and pupuserias, he met and celebrated the many newly Americanized families who toiled to build good lives for themselves and their children. They cooked up the only dishes they knew as humble offerings in exchange for understanding welcomes. These were the establishments that Jonathan clearly enjoyed eating in and writing about the most.
Starting out just when California was being celebrated as our most vibrant outpost of what was thought of as the new West Coast cuisine via the sophisticated, innovative restaurants of Wolfgang Puck in L.A., Jonathan began his appreciation of quotidian restaurants featuring cuisines that were classically ethnic, much as he disliked that term. Thereby he drew a parallel picture of the city’s menu, with both high and low, posh and plebeian being enticingly represented and, in the process, boosted the city’s overall reputation as a food Mecca.
Although we shared a few emails and Jonathan generously altered a speaking date to accommodate one of mine, for a program at UCLA, we met just once. It was in New York in 2016 at the press showing of City of Gold, the wonderful documentary that celebrated Jonathan and his work.
About the only thing he said to me was, “You love New York, the way I love Los Angeles,” and then the lights dimmed and the show began.