I first met Jonathan Gold in 1985 when I came to Los Angeles to be the new film critic at the LA Weekly. A couple of weeks in, I was reading the galleys of a review and saw a sentence circled with the note, “You’re going to hate yourself when you see this in print.” Not exactly a normal proofreading mark. But looking over the sentence, I thought it was probably right. I wanted to find out who wrote it and was introduced to a biggish, ginger-haired young man in a shirt so assaultively gaudy that its ugliness felt almost conceptual.
We became friends, and in the simplest way possible. We just liked one another.
This could be tricky. Back then, Jonathan wasn’t the avuncular figure that everyone now knows. He was an ambitious young writer torn between harsh criticism and generosity. He was cuttingly critical of everything and everyone, including himself, for not living up to the standards of the great writer he wanted to become. Yet at the same time, nobody did more to find talent, to tell people that they should write and encourage them when they started writing. Some of you he helped are here today and know exactly what I mean.
When he began reviewing restaurants, I — from my exalted peak as a film critic — joked that being a food critic was the lowest adult job in journalism. He laughed. But of course, you all know the real punchline to that joke. Twenty-odd years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and I had people asking me if I was going to review the movie that had been made about him.
Now, Jonathan lived a life that one might call, if one was being kind, improvisational. I don’t think he planned on the career that he ended up having.
I always saw him as being like our version of Christopher Columbus. He sailed forth in search of the perfect taco and he wound up discovering Los Angeles. In all its multiplicity. Of course, unlike Columbus, he didn’t want to enslave or convert those he met in those Mexican, Sichuan, Thai and Korean restaurants. Just the opposite. He wanted to take pleasure in what they had offer, learn who the people there were and where they came from, and then share his knowledge and enthusiasm with everyone else. Over the years, he achieved the enormous feat of making our whole city feel more interesting and alive and surprising. Who knew there was an Uzbek restaurant in Hollywood?
I was proud of him for that. But as a friend, I was even prouder of him for becoming a better and kinder man with each passing decade. Nearly all the early anger burned away. But I can’t talk about his changes without mentioning someone else.
Early in our friendship, I asked him why the heck he’d gone to so many Mexican restaurants. “I like hot Latina chicks,” he replied. He may have been kidding, but then again, he did marry one. And as you’d expect of a Pulitzer Prize winning critic, he found the best one (no offense to anyone else here). He adored Laurie Ochoa from the beginning — I was there, I saw it. I saw it at the office, and I saw it when the three of us went to cover the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta. (Naturally, we missed our flight there because Jonathan was driving.) And I know he never stopped adoring her. In our emails, he always called her The Central Committee, with a kind of reverent awe. He knew Laurie was the spine, the apparatus, the fortress that held everything together. And it was being with Jonathan that helped Laurie become her true self, flowering into the Laurie Ochoa we all love and admire today. I was there and saw that, too. Together they were the perfect team. They always made each other better.
If you’d asked me back in the 1980s to name the one person I knew who should never, under any circumstances become a parent, I would’ve instantly said Jonathan. And considering I was working at the LA Weekly at the time, he beat some ferocious competition for that honor. Yet to borrow a term from Jonathan’s second least favorite president, George W. Bush, I had mis-underestimated him. Fatherhood made him bloom. He adored Isabel and Leon, and they adored him back. In 33 years, he never talked about any piece he’d written with the same pride he did of them. You should know, Izzy and Leon, that your dad could even be kind of boring on the subject of how great you were — and he hated to be boring.
When someone you love dies, it’s hard not to be selfish and think of what you yourself have lost. I lost a lot with Jonathan’s death, from his funny texts — he sent me one about the World Cup from his deathbed — to all those nights in the San Gabriel Valley when, after a long meal, he and I would stand in the restaurant’s parking lot yakking and yakking until our families began sighing and pulling out their cellphones to show us the time.
Still, if I had to name one thing that he gave me, and many of you, and really everyone who read him — it was this. Jonathan was always trying to pull me out of my head and out of my house and get me to eat, drink, see, hear. and walk through someplace new, someplace I’d never been before. Over the years, he did this for me scores, even hundreds, of times.
“The Fibonaccis are playing,” he’d say. “You should come.”
“I found an amazing Cambodian restaurant in Long Beach — you should come.”
“We’re having people over for New Year’s — you should come.”
‘There are these great Basque places in Bakersfield — you should come.”
“I’ve got tickets to NWA — you should come.”
“The new Spago is open — you should come.”
“We’re going to Italy. You should come.”
It’s hard to imagine any friend having a mantra more generous, inviting, and life-affirming than that.