Black Atlantans Have Been Complaining About Local Restaurants For Years — Enter: Keith Lee

Keith Lee, TikTok’s favorite food reviewer, visited Atlanta with his family last week and exposed what residents have been complaining about for years: Some restaurants have a customer service problem.

Lee went on a viral food tour of the city, racking up 82.4 million views across nine videos as of Tuesday. The TikTok series inspired numerous commentary videos, which also received millions of views. Many online who identify as locals or are familiar with the city praised him for highlighting the problems they say consumers face regularly — including strict rules, early closings, difficulty ordering and long wait times — when they dine out at some of the city’s Instagram hot spot brunch restaurants.

He said in a video that during his visit to the Atlanta Breakfast Club, he encountered unusual rules, such as being unable to serve water until the whole party was seated, prohibiting add-ons to the initial order and charging $1 for butter. One restaurant, The Real Milk and Honey, declined to serve members of his family, and another, Old Lady Gang, assigned them a 90-minute wait time. He said in a video that both instances occurred before he had arrived at the establishments.

The restaurants both offered to serve Lee right away when he did arrive, but he declined and left, taking his family with him. Lee, who has 14.4 million TikTok followers, said he turned down special treatment and always wants to be treated like a “normal person” when he is dining out.

Lee declined to comment for this article. Representatives for the Atlanta Breakfast Club, The Real Milk and Honey and Old Lady Gang did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Real Milk and Honey posted a now-deleted response to Lee’s review, saying, “Who’s Keith Lee?” Singer Kandi Burruss, who owns Old Lady Gang, responded to Lee’s review by apologizing for the long wait time and asking him to return one day.

Those restaurants really should be taking this as a lesson on how to improve and what to improve, because it really shouldn’t be about Keith Lee coming to town.

— Zackory Kirk, an Atlanta-based food reviewer on TikTok

News of Lee’s experiences has sparked widespread discussion online. Even the artist Cardi B weighed in on her experience visiting Atlanta in an Instagram Live, saying that “you could barely order in Atlanta restaurants” and that she has to name-drop herself to get through to some restaurants. Author Roxane Gay, who said she has been to one of the restaurants Lee ventured to, also shared her take on X, calling Lee’s video a “delightful adventure to watch.” 

Zackory Kirk, an Atlanta-based food reviewer on TikTok, said Lee’s experience brought attention to the disappointment residents feel every day. Many people in Atlanta “who know better just don’t go” to the restaurants Lee had bad experiences with in the videos. 

“Those restaurants really should be taking this as a lesson on how to improve and what to improve, because it really shouldn’t be about Keith Lee coming to town,” Kirk said. “It should be about any person in this city who is willing to spend money on that service getting a great experience every time.”

Kirk said many restaurateurs in Atlanta spend a lot of money on social media promotion and try to court local influencers to get their followers to visit their restaurants.

“A lot of our Atlanta restaurants are good for the ’Gram and good for social media flexing and flossing, but in the reality of real flavor and real experience, many of them do fall short,” he said. “And it’s a real problem that people who live in Atlanta experience and face.”

Meanwhile, influencers get “the gold standard, the gold star treatment, the best experience with the best food, and then people in Atlanta respond to it,” he said. “They flock to these viral hits and then walk away disappointed with a mediocre experience.”

The rules at some of the restaurants have been a focus of the discussion online. The house rules for The Real Milk and Honey, which previously went viral in March, were criticized for being too demanding of customers. The rules state no separate checks, no reservations, no parties greater than four, automatic 18% gratuities on checks over $75 and no modifications to any item, including accommodations for allergies. 

Atlanta restaurants “implement rules that put the work on the customer or the client, instead of putting the work on management to figure out how to make this work,” Kirk said. 

Imani Bashir, a travel journalist who covers dining experiences and previously worked in restaurants in Atlanta, said the rules at some of those restaurants, many of which are Black-owned, perpetuate racist stereotypes about Black customers. 

She said that when she worked as a server, it was widely believed among fellow workers that Black customers don’t tip and split all their checks or that they generally won’t conduct themselves in an appropriate manner. 

Those stereotypes lead to the restaurant rules, which Bashir said reflect internalized anti-Blackness and “how it is that we feel culturally about each other.”

“Even in some of these really high-end establishments, there aren’t all these rules,” Bashir said, referring to top restaurants she has been to during her travels. “There’s kind of an expectation that if you’re coming here, you kind of know how to conduct yourself. And I think, unfortunately, Black folks aren’t really given a chance” at Atlanta restaurants.

Bashir said a lot of Black social media users have been vocal about the disrespect they’ve experienced from various service-based industries recently. In many cases, she said, it seems like small businesses treat customers as though they are the lucky ones to receive services. She said some hospitality entrepreneurs have lost sight of the importance of being hospitable. 

“A lot of people build these establishments with the purpose of making money,” she said. “They don’t do it because they actually enjoy people. They don’t do it because they’re in the business of serving others. They don’t do it because they actually want to provide environments … where they feel like Black people should be able to thrive.”

Bashir hopes the restaurants learned a lesson from Lee’s visits and understand that many people trust Lee to give them honest reviews. She said he provides effective word-of mouth exposure that can’t be paid for.

“If you’re not listening to the people that are spending money with you, what is your retention going to look like?” Bashir said. “The amount of people that are going to come back is going to be nil to none.”

Kirk suggested Lee return to Atlanta to try more “hidden gems” that could benefit from “the Keith Lee effect,” which refers to his ability to bring in business to struggling restaurants. 

“He went to what was popular,” Kirk said. “He did not go to what was best. And when I say best, I’m not saying the $300 restaurants. I’m saying restaurants that are an excellent value, but it still gives you a great food experience.”

Lee urged people in a video Monday evening not to send hate to restaurants he had bad experiences with. He said some restaurants, even some he didn’t dine in but which have names similar to those of restaurants he reviewed, received death threats. 

He also showed the impact he had on businesses he reviewed positively. Many of them had lines out the door, and some of the owners posted TikTok videos thanking Lee for his visits. 

Daysia Tolentino

Daysia Tolentino is a culture and trends reporter for NBC News.

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