Exploring: Jonathan Gold and Restaurant Reviews

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Telling Stories

My story here is not as poetic as Jonathan Gold’s writing or as funny and heartwarming as Ruth Reichl’s. There’s no real structure. I didn’t have a memorable lunch with Gold or exchange encouraging emails. The closest I ever got was a toxic boyfriend who had a friend who knew Gold - and claimed we could maybe have Passover seder with them in L.A. That didn't happen, but I'm sure it would've been awesome.

It’s hard to pinpoint when I first read Gold's work. When I discovered food writing could be a career, I think I started reading Gold and Reichl first - his columns and her memoirs.

No other food writer captured the voice of a city through its food like Gold. His prose could make you chuckle, bring you to happy tears or simply make your belly start to grumble, slowly building up from his first sentence, the light reeling you in toward a seat at the table, and by the end your stomach open and ready - and your mind abuzz with curiosity. 

It was a pleasure and honor reading his work as a young journalist searching for my voice. He inspired me to do more, think harder and write food stories beyond just star ratings.

His Stories

No one could ever match Gold's unique voice.

There was his attention to detail; he heavily researched topics, countries and dishes before visiting a restaurant. There was his knowledge and ability to weave music anecdotes throughout his writing flawlessly; I was jealous of the amount of music knowledge he had and how he magically made it work within a food piece. It seemed he already had multiple lives when he entered the world of food. 

I loved how reading his columns felt like sitting at the table with him. It was a very Mr. Rogers-y feeling - similar to the phenomenon of Bourdain making us feel we were on his journeys with him. I wanted to do that in my writing, to really know food, people and tell a unique story in a comfortable, casual way. Just rating restaurants or writing lists would never cut it for me. 

Restaurant Reviews, Sorta

One of the things that stood out to me in Reichl’s book, Garlic and Sapphires, was that The New York Times would send critics to a restaurant four or five different times at different times of day. Reichl added another layer by dressing up as different characters - some old, some young - and noting how she was treated differently in restaurants. It became an anthropological study.

1) My Restaurant Visits

What is the story?

When I started working for the now-defunct restaurant blog, The Gotham Palate, I didn’t always get to interview the chefs or owners, but I would at least ask the service staff questions to get more of a sense of the place.

I chose the places to review, and I often waited until after I ate somewhere to decide if I would review it. It was definitely not the formula of the Los Angeles Times or New York Times. Without being paid, I could only review one per week at best.

2) Press Dinners

I attended press dinners set up for groups of writers and influencers.

When a course of the meal arrived, Instagrammers’ flashes lit up the restaurant like paparazzi. It was way too long before we actually ate anything to write an adequate review, in my opinion. 

Instead, I tried to get more of the story, asking questions that would make the chef pause and reflect while trying to woo us once we were filled with food and wine. It wasn’t the right setting to capture a unique angle, and we were always expected to write a positive review. It was generally fine and a nice way to meet fellow writers and experience food all over the city in restaurants I’d never prioritize on my own.

The one time I had a real issue was when a new modern sports bar opened. It had a huge menu that featured raw seafood towers. I was invited to a press preview before it opened to the public and they showered me with oysters, shrimp and “internationally-inspired” bar food selections. Food poisoning is not fun; I nixed the review and provided feedback for the culinary team before the bar opened to the public.

“But you got free food!”

Some people don’t understand why I stopped writing restaurant reviews. 

The way I was writing them wasn’t genuine. Covering press dinners, though technically fun, with free-flowing food and wine, was not an enriching way to capture food stories. This was not my full-time job, and I got paid nothing. (For the press dinners we would always leave a tip for the staff, but everything was comped.) 

I also covered cooking classes and lectures at 92Y, which I enjoyed, because I saw those as learning opportunities. 

To an extent it was cool having an outlet to write about restaurants. But it wasn’t a sustainable way of writing about food, and it didn’t feel fair to the restaurants to only visit once and write a review. 

This was why I started working in restaurants in 2010, to experience the other side of restaurants. My first restaurant job was a shitshow, but I stayed for three years and made some great friends. We still tell stories of that place, but that could be its own blog series..stay tuned!

Working in a restaurant 4-5 shifts a week, sometimes more, I became burnt out on being in restaurants and thinking about them all the time. There was so much more to food. It was an archaic way of thinking to assume that any food writer could only cover restaurants, and I felt like the culture, especially in NYC, put too much focus and pressure on restaurants. Even when I moved onto writing features for Highbrow Magazine my title was ‘Chief Food Critic,’ though I wasn’t reviewing anything.

Restaurant work is insanely hard. It almost makes me upset every time a new restaurant opens in NYC, knowing the risk they’re taking and what those first six months of criticism, Insta pics and more mean to the people on the line. I want to support a diverse food landscape, not criticize it.

Unfortunately these reviews are no longer posted online, and I didn’t save them as PDFs. I do feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to eat so much as part of my career. Recognizing this privilege, I also volunteered at food pantries or food rescue orgs as well.

Favorite Restaurants from The Gotham Palate

Thanks to all of them for their unseen hard work, patient, gracious service and delicious food. These were my favorites.

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BCD Tofu House (Koreatown, 2013, comped lunch)
This Cali-based chain arrived in NYC in 2013. I had a fun, bustling lunch here amongst many excited eaters who were loyal customers on the West Coast.

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Byblos (Murray Hill, 2015, press dinner)
Wonderful, longtime family-owned Lebanese food and my favorite hummus in the city in a jovial, welcoming atmosphere.

Balzem (Nolita, 2015, press dinner) - yummy tapas in a beautiful space that takes you out of NYC for a few hours

Crescent Grill (Long Island City, 2013, comped dinner/relaunch party) - high-quality seasonal food with an art gallery. There were lots of excited locals showing their support, including artists, crew members from Broadway shows and workers from nearby Silvercup Studios. I even met one who worked on Sesame Street for 35 years! The restaurant also has a free car service for guests. Not only do I love riding in shuttles (a weird lifelong obsession), but to me that is true hospitality: taking care of guests from start to finish.

La La Land

Most of my family lives in L.A., but I’m from Pittsburgh. I was visiting in November 2015 when Gold’s yearly 101 Best Restaurants insert came out. I read it religiously each morning over breakfast, trying to better understand the current dining scene and pinpointing my top picks.

Being the gloriously spread out city that it is, I think I only made it to a taco truck and two Thai spots. I started a list for my next trip in 2016.

To make it to the truck on time, my cousin and I had to leave our other cousin’s bar mitzvah early, but we had planned this in advance. We saved room throughout the night, and she was excited both to eat and to practice her Spanish, since she was learning at the time. After waiting in a long line of mostly hungry families, she flawlessly ordered us five tacos in Spanish. I love learning languages because you always think you’re terrible until you’re fluent enough to argue or explain a story in long detail. But she was perfectly fluent enough to order food - the first and most important hurdle in learning any language.

We hit a couple of Gold’s Thai spots. I loved riding into a strip mall filled with unsuspecting storefronts, then walking past a blasé facade into a bright restaurant full of life, spices and sizzles. 

I badly want more of these meals, which means letting go of how long it takes to get everywhere in L.A. and remembering that it’s worth it. I need to remember that Gold would pick up his dining companions and drop them off, no matter how far their destination was. He loved riding through the cityscape. 

I'm due to explore the Jonathan Gold roadmap in more detail. Look out, L.A.