As usual, KY, I agree with you just about completely. A few small points...
Quite so. Craig Claiborne, for example, earned his power, and he's only the most famous of the "old guard." The problem -- and it is a real one -- is that Claiborne et al. also set some precedents:
1. Many reviewers try to write as though they too had earned this right. Stylistically, it's not that difficult to sound authoritative in a brief review if you have decent prose. This leads into the problem I was discussing before about reviewers pretending to know what they're talking about when they don't. You don't have to be a chef, but you should know what you're talking about. There was a review, I believe in New York Magazine, online somewhere, of a recently-opened restaurant under the aegis of Vongerichten. It's a Japanese place, doing mostly classic standards, some sushi, some other things. The reviewer trashed the place for several reasons. For one thing, the sushi was boring, the same old thing, nothing terribly creative. For another, they have dishes like shabu-shabu that you have to cook yourself at the table, which is ridiculous in a fancy restaurant. Clearly, this reviewer knows nothing whatever about medium high-end Tokyo food, and yet his writing suggests that he has every right to blitz the place.
2. Because Claiborne and others gained the power to make or break a place, every reviewer wants that power, it seems, and this means that restaurants can end up living in fear of reviewers. This is I think why Ed is so worked up about reviewers. It's one thing if somebody who had really earned his stripes becomes the voice of doom, and it's another if every wannabe takes potshots in hopes of being thought clever. One of the wonderful things about the film "Ratatouille" was the reviewer, Anton Ego, remarking in his review monologue that negative criticism is fun to write and enjoyable to read, but it becomes all too easy to miss the good stuff because you're always looking for nits to pick (he put it better). He's right.
We don't disagree at all. I mean a review in which "color" is nothing more than that. A review that could be boiled down as follows:
food was pretty good
the duck was creative
price was high but not outrageous
the place was kind of noisy
commentary about the reviewer's personal sense of style and how it conflicts with the choice of tableware
In a real review, a good review, color is framework. It sets up the piece, gives life to the place reviewed, and brings context to the food, concept, service, and so on. It's the hardest part, and the one that makes the difference between a Zagat squib and a real review.
The absolute master of this is Calvin Trillin, who manages to write entire essays about food that seem to be 99% color and background, always witty, always charming, always personal. Reading a Trillin article, you know Trillin. And although he doesn't really review restaurants, if he did, you wouldn't have to hear a lot of noise about whether the squab was authentic to know whether you'd like the place -- and you might not agree with Trillin. You'd just know, "okay, he likes the place, I get just what this place is like, and I don't think it's for me." That is extraordinary.
Incidentally, KY, it's not quite true that you can't learn to write reviews the way you can learn other things. You can. And if you think about it, you know this very well indeed. You learn by learning to write. You read immense numbers of reviews, and steal phrasing, structure, and images that really sing. You make these your own, like all good writers do. You develop a voice, a style of your own. And you drive everything through this one obsessive focus on food, in its totality -- taste, appearance, smell, table setting, service, decor, style, concept, all of it. For some people, learning to cook very well is an essential part of this; for others, it's irrelevant. Trillin, by his own account, isn't terribly good with a microwave or a toaster -- it was Alice who did all the cooking. He just eats. But nobody who's read Calvin Trillin thinks he doesn't know food, doesn't know what he eats inside and out, isn't giving a lucid and honest appraisal of what he eats.
As I say, you and I agree entirely. Right?