why-a-food-critic’s-tiktoks-about-a-few-atlanta-restaurants-ignited-a-national-controversy

Why A Food Critic’s TikToks About A Few Atlanta Restaurants Ignited A National Controversy


Wide Angle

How Keith Lee Single-Handedly Forced a Reckoning of Atlanta’s Black Restaurant Scene

The food influencer’s TikToks have ignited a national controversy—and even Cardi B got involved.

Keith Lee in Atlanta. Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

If you have been on the internet these past few days, no matter your usual algorithmic offerings, there’s a good chance you’ve found yourself thrown headfirst into a roiling sea of drama involving TikTok, food influencing, and Atlanta—and, at the center of this whirlpool, a single figure, Keith Lee. Lee, a 27-year-old based in Las Vegas, is an incredibly popular TikTokker who reviews food from restaurants and other eateries. Recently, he made a highly anticipated trip to Atlanta to review the local food scene, but things went horribly awry when he had trouble receiving food or service at multiple establishments. His videos about the experience caused a stir on social media—especially Black Twitter (Black … X?) and TikTok—sparking a heated conversation about Black hospitality and the entire Atlanta food scene, to the point where even rapper Cardi B got involved.

Does all of that sound like the most 2023 version of Mad Libs to you? Never fear—your Slate explainer is here.

Where did this Keith Lee guy even come from?

Lee is a former MMA fighter who has been making TikTok videos since 2020. He’s known for his food-related content; I first became a fan in early 2022, when he made a series of charming videos documenting his quests to fulfill his wife’s pregnancy cravings. Slate’s ICYMI podcast did a good recap of his humble beginnings, explaining how, at the time of the pregnancy craving videos, Lee had 1 million followers on TikTok, but later that year, after he pivoted to reviewing Las Vegas restaurants, he gained more than 7 million followers in three months. Lee now has more than 14 million followers on the app. His restaurant reviews are so popular that he has single-handedly reinvigorated struggling small businesses—many of them owned by restaurateurs of color—that were at risk of closing. After a Keith Lee visit, some of those businesses now sell out nearly every day.

OK, so he reviews food. What’s so novel about that? 

Much of Lee’s appeal comes from the no-frills style of his videos, in which he rates every item he gets from a restaurant on a 10-point scale, while also commenting on the customer service. ICYMI describes his reviews as “hype-free,” which is a perfect encapsulation of his simple-yet-addictive video style. He comes across as a family man who loves to eat, uplift people who work hard, and spread the gospel of good food. Even though he remains plain-faced and speaks in a monotone—a trademark style that he says derives from his social anxiety—that’s partly what makes his content so moreish.

Despite his popularity, Lee maintains that he wants to be treated like every other paying customer—a welcome change from the entitled, clout-chasing attitudes often found among TikTok’s most obnoxious food influencers. He usually places delivery orders without using his name or sends his family members into a restaurant to ask for a table so that he can receive a realistic experience free of preferential treatment. He is also known to tip his servers, and occasionally all servers in an establishment, extremely well.

Aw, maybe not all food influencers are bad. So, what’s going on with Lee and Atlanta?

Lee recently took a family trip to Georgia’s capital, which was already a sign for many familiar with the city’s Black restaurant scene that he was going to expose some shenanigans. And expose he did! Lee noted that he experienced customer service issues, incredibly long wait times, confusing rules about ordering, and wrong or misleading information about hours of service at multiple popular restaurants. For example, the Southern-style restaurant Old Lady Gang—owned by Kandi Burruss, a former singer of the R&B group Xscape turned Real Housewife of Atlanta—allegedly wouldn’t pick up the phone when Lee tried to call, couldn’t be ordered from on DoorDash, and apparently told Lee’s family, who had gone inside without him, that there were no reservations or weekend takeout available, leaving only the option of waiting more than an hour to dine in. However, after Lee himself decided to walk in, he said, the restaurant was suddenly able to offer him a table, in a likely show of preferential treatment. Lee said he ended up leaving for another popular restaurant, Toast on Lenox, that essentially did the same thing; videos from other waiting patrons at that establishment showed Lee standing up for them by saying he wouldn’t eat unless they did first.

The TikTokker’s most-watched Atlanta review, however, was of the restaurant The Real Milk and Honey. According to Lee, he attempted to call his order in but was met with an automatic message saying that the restaurant does not take orders and that the only way to place a pickup order is through DoorDash. However, Lee noted, the delivery app listed the restaurant as closed, even though the hours listed on the business’s website allegedly indicated that it didn’t close for another hour. Lee sent his family into the restaurant, but they were purportedly told that the restaurant was closed for “deep cleaning,” despite Lee allegedly witnessing customers walking in to grab orders. His family was also purportedly told by the staff that the restaurant has “rules”—something that, as locals have noted, is not uncommon in Atlanta, which can contribute to a sense of frustration and confusion about how to patronize certain mainstay eateries. Finally, The Real Milk and Honey, like other establishments Lee would frequent throughout the rest of his trip, also allegedly tried to service him after declining his family, prompting Lee to declare in his video, “I’m a normal person. I pay for my food like everybody else. … We are all normal people. Respectfully, if you’re not gonna do it then, don’t do it now.”

So, you’re saying that this is normal for Atlanta restaurants?

Lee’s TikToks and the discussion they generated suggest that, yes, this kind of experience is not outside the norm in Atlanta. It felt biblical, the way popular Atlanta restaurants were being outed, like a scorching of the Earth that is the entire Atlanta food scene. Lee’s video about The Real Milk and Honey, sparked some discourse about the restaurant’s “rules” and the general standard of Black-owned Atlanta businesses. Plenty of Atlanta residents and foodies commented on how needed these videos were, as the restaurants have allegedly gotten away with poor customer service for a long time.

But it’s not just your average Atlanta resident cheering Lee on—a high-profile celeb has sided with the foodie. Cardi B, weighing in on the brouhaha, said that she, too, has difficulty dining out in Atlanta, even as a famous celebrity, because restaurants don’t do pickup or to-go orders, are closed on random days, and have weird hours. She said that she has to name-drop when she goes out to eat in Atlanta; that she “feels bad for Atlanta restaurants”; that even though she’s famous, it’s still “a hassle”; and that she feels as if the restaurants in Atlanta “don’t like to make money.”

Some Keith Lee naysayers did criticize what they saw as attempts to bring down Black businesses, but plenty of others got down to the meat of the matter in response: Hospitality is actually a pretty strong point of contention in the Black community. It’s no secret to many Black people that, within certain “chocolate cities,” but especially Atlanta, Black patrons have had to deal with tedious dress codes, distracting DJs, impossible rules, and—as Cardi B put it—an attitude of restaurants behaving as if they’re doing customers a favor. There are plenty of reasons why these rules and oddities might be in place: to create a sense of exclusivity, which can create demand for business, or even to play into ideas of an upper-class or bougie dining experience that Black entrepreneurs may feel the need to attain. But many of Lee’s supporters in this debate expressed hope that his videos, made from the perspective of an honest and unpretentious Black critic, will lead to better standards for Black-owned restaurants in Atlanta and beyond.

Whew. Now, don’t tell me: This story doesn’t end there.

You guessed it. Unfortunately, The Real Milk and Honey did not take too kindly to Lee’s honest review of his experience. The owner posted a response video (it has since been taken down but can still be found floating around on social media) insulting the TikTokker by sarcastically saying, in the Mariah Carey school of shade, that they “don’t know” who he is. Another person, identified by some as a manager of the restaurant, was caught calling Lee “autistic” in a TikTok comment. (In an overall apology to Lee posted on the restaurant’s official Instagram page on Tuesday, management stated that the account in question was in no way affiliated with any of the business’s employees.)

Similarly, Old Lady Gang owner Kandi Burruss made a TikTok seemingly addressing Lee’s video about not being able to order takeout on the weekends, ultimately thanking him and inviting him to come again. She didn’t address his being offered special treatment.

On Tuesday night, Lee posted a video responding to the whirlpool of reactions his Atlanta trip has received. He expresses frustration over being unable to win with some of the public, whom he feels lambaste him for tearing down businesses when he gives a negative review, but then accuse him of being fake for making only positive ones. He also throws in a comment, seemingly alluding to The Real Milk and Honey’s dis video, about restaurants insinuating that his opinion matters to them only if it’s positive, despite the fact that they have asked him to drop by. He promises to stay honest in his reviews, but he emphasizes some safety concerns on the part of himself, his family, and the restaurants—in a previous video, Lee had mentioned that a different local establishment, Milk and Honey, had received death threats after internet weirdos confused it for The Real Milk and Honey—and staunchly disapproves of anyone threatening anyone else.

Well, damn. Did Lee at least get anything good to eat while he was in Atlanta?

Totally! He patronized a Jamaican place called Juci Jerk, which is now apparently incredibly busy after Lee’s very positive review. Lee also gave another Jamaican restaurant, Jamaican Jerk Biz, a positive review, as well as $2,600—matching the owner’s earnings for the day—as thanks for staying open late for him despite not knowing Lee’s identity. So, rest assured, although Lee’s experience in Atlanta was, um, interesting, to say the least, he did get to enjoy some nice jerk in between sparking a reckoning about the area’s restaurant scene. However, given the way the entire drama played out, Lee cautioned that his family wouldn’t be traveling to any other cities if the reaction were going to be as serious and mean-spirited as they’d experienced during the Atlanta trip. But one thing is for sure: Wherever Keith Lee goes, my fellow hungry brothers and sisters will follow.

  • Food
  • Internet Culture
  • TikTok
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