L.A. Weekly Food Critic Besha Rodell Leaving Her Post After Five Years
Los Angeles is losing one of its most influential voices on food, restaurants, and the at times complicated culture around dining in this city: Besha Rodell, the food critic at LA Weekly, announced Tuesday that she was leaving her post after five years.
Rodell announced her departure in a goodbye essay in which she called it “the best job in the world.” The James Beard Foundation Media award-winner stealthily moved back to her hometown of Melbourne, Australia last weekend, she revealed in the essay, motivated in part by a desire to spend more time with her family. (Full disclosure: Besha is a former colleague from my time at LA Weekly).
“I owe Los Angeles a great debt. I owe the chefs of the city a great debt for giving me such incredible fodder over the years,” Rodell wrote. “I tried, in my reviews, to repay that debt, to pour as much honesty and thought and serious consideration as possible into each piece.”
As examples of that honesty and serious consideration, she pointed to her recent four-star review of Evan Funke’s Venice restaurant Felix and last year’s two-star review of Otium downtown. At Felix, Rodell marveled at the taste of the food (she recommends the pappardelle), the feel of the dining room, and the graciousness of the servers—all of which mattered a lot more to her than the showy details that a publicist might point out: the chef’s romantic trips to the Italian countryside, for example, or the gorgeous glass walls of the kitchen.
But not every review was quite as glowing. At Otium, for example, she called the service “uncaring” and the cooking mistakes arrogant. Her suggestion? Order a cocktail at the bar and eat dinner elsewhere. Even if the meal was unpleasant, Rodell’s writing was always entertaining. She described the place as straight out of Central Casting for a chic restaurant, for example. It’s never a good sign—for the restaurant, anyway—when the first sentence of the review is “Good lord, Otium is a ravishing production.”
Rodell was hired at LA Weekly in 2012 to fill the the very large shoes left by one of the city’s most celebrated critics, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Gold, who took a position with the L.A. Times. Prior to joining the Weekly, Rodell served as restaurant critic for Creative Loafing, an alt-weekly in Atlanta, Georgia. Rodell was skeptical of Los Angeles at first—it’s not the easiest or most welcoming city to adjust to—she wrote in her introduction post at the Weekly. But ultimately, it was a walnut—“a walnut wholly unlike any walnut I’d tasted before”—in a radicchio salad at Pizzeria Mozza that warmed her to California’s charms.
During her time at the Weekly, Rodell implemented a five-star rating system for restaurants, largely, she wrote, as a service to readers. The decision was spurred in part because the Times eliminated their rating system in 2012 and Michelin—the global authority on star ratings—had pulled out of the L.A. market three years before that. But the star rating system had its faults, and Rodell was the first to acknowledge it, writing last year that she, too, found it frustrating that a three-star rating could apply to both a hipster taco joint (Salazar) and one of the city’s most ambitious restaurants (Gwen). Though imperfect, the system was still useful.
Rodell was an anonymous critic—meaning she guarded her image and made great strides not to be publicly identified, in spite of attempts by Eater LA to unmask her early on—but she was always transparent, particularly when it came to her process. She’s written at least three times, for example, about why she waits at least a month before reviewing a restaurant: Namely, because it takes a couple of weeks for a restaurant to fully get up to speed.
Even as a native Australian, Rodell seemed to understand the culture around American dining better than any other critic in the game. She often used her outsider perspective to her advantage, lending sharp insights into the intersections of race, class, status, and taste that play out like a spectacle across American restaurant dining rooms. She was also a fierce critic of her own industry and profession, using her platform to call out its problems, including “overwhelming whiteness.”
“We in the food world live in our food-world bubble; we tie ourselves in knots talking about the peril of cultural appropriation in Portland food trucks while the highest-grossing restaurant in America blithely offers bottle service under a giant, reclining Buddha statue as paintings of demure geishas cast their eyes alluringly downward behind the bar,” she wrote in a particularly memorable recent review of West Hollywood’s Tao, which, if you couldn’t guess, she hated.
But Rodell’s love for this city—which all started from that very first bite of walnut—was apparent in every review she penned, from Felix, yes, even to Otium. “It’s been an incredible honor to take part in that conversation [around eating in L.A.] over the last half-decade and to witness the rest of the world waking up to the truth that Angelenos have known for years,” Rodell wrote in her farewell post. “This is the most exciting food city in America.”
Los Angeles will miss you dearly, Besha. Tonight, we’ll drink a 40 oz. in your honor.