When a food critic comes to a city that prides itself on its food scene, the restaurants and their devotees take notice. But rarely does a traditional critic generate as much excitement as Atlanta has seen with the recent visit of Keith Lee, a foodie with a massive army of 14 million followers on TikTok.
Mr. Lee, who is known for his ability to revive a small business with his countless fans, was often frustrated by the strange rules at various restaurants.
“Butter is a dollar? At the breakfast place?” he asked in a video while eating takeout in his car on his first day in Atlanta. Mr. Lee, who lives in Las Vegas, reviews mostly independent, mom-and-pop restaurants, many of which are black-owned. He often orders takeout and asks his family to pick him up, so he doesn’t get the star influencer treatment.
Mr. Lee has made videos from Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles, but the response in Atlanta has been remarkable. It appears that for many of his followers there, his criticisms have opened the door to an end to his long-standing grudge with some of the city’s restaurants.
Complaints include surcharges for items like hot sauce or syrup and a lack of options for reservation or pickup orders. Some complaints involve rules that are common in many other cities: for example, the requirement that the entire party be present to be seated.
But Mr. Lee’s video has worried some Atlanta diners, who have called for change on social media. “I hope this is a warning to some of these restaurants,” one TikTok user from Atlanta commented. “The extra ‘rules’ are getting crazy.”
Even rapper Cardi B said on Instagram Live on Monday that she “can barely order at an Atlanta restaurant” unless she said her name. Of course, restaurants have long been giving special treatment to celebrities and even some influencers, but Mr. Lee has made equal treatment for all diners a core part of his message. “I’m just Keith,” he said in a video. “Aside from social media, I’m a normal person.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote this week that the city “Keith Lead” was, Noting that his tour of the city’s food scene coincided with another seismic food event: the announcement of Atlanta’s first Michelin-star restaurant,
Some restaurant owners saw real results, for better or worse, after Mr. Lee’s visits. A restaurant, after receiving rave reviews, sells out for the first time in its history and has to extend its hours. At another restaurant where Mr. Lee had a disappointing experience, his inbox was quickly filled with vitriol and threats.
These are two aspects of what some people call the Keith Lee effect.
Mr. Lee did not respond to messages left this week. A former professional mixed martial arts fighter, he has stated that he began using TikTok to reduce his anxiety about public speaking. He began posting restaurant reviews on the platform in 2021.
His account soon gained a large audience, which responded to his willingness to try offbeat restaurants. Mr. Lee posts reviews from his home or his car and often tries places recommended by viewers or restaurant staff. He is proud of his neutrality, he has said, never accepting special treatment and sometimes tipping thousands of dollars. This year, he collaborated with an influencer named MisterBeast, who has over 88 million followers on TikTok, to support struggling restaurants.
That broader reach can be a blessing for business owners, but it can also lead to heated debate.
The Real Milk & Honey, College Park, Ga. , a brunch spot in the U.S., came under fire from viewers last week. Mr. Lee expressed frustration at the restaurant’s complicated ordering process and his offer of early seating due to his celebrity status, which he declined.
“I hope this is a warning to some of these restaurants,” one TikTok user wrote. Many agreed, but others said they found regulations necessary to maintain business.
After Mr. Lee posted his video, Real Milk & Honey spokeswoman Shauna Neely said the restaurant had received cruel and hurtful messages on social media.
“Brunch is a trend everywhere, but it’s huge in Atlanta,” Ms. Neely said. “We have to enforce these house rules because we’re extremely busy.”
But, he added, “The only thing that’s negative are the comments.” The attention has attracted more social media followers and patrons, he said. restaurant also but said Instagram said its posted rules for food were out of date and have since been updated to reflect changes.
Comments on social media quickly got out of control when another restaurant with the similar name Milk & Honey was confused with the restaurant Mr Lee had discussed. The owner of that restaurant said staff members were receiving death threats, according to a screenshot posted by Mr Lee on TikTok.
Mr Lee urged his viewers to desist from such behaviour. “Under any circumstances, this is not right in my view,” he said.
On the other side of the Keith Lee effect is Fairburn, Ga. There are restaurants like Dining Experience in , where positive reviews have given new energy to the restaurant.
“We sold out Saturday and Sunday,” said owner Kayesha Johnson. “This is the first time this has happened.”
In rap-up video, Mr. Lee responded to some of the uproar about his trip, which coincided with a family visit, by saying he would be reluctant to visit other cities if it would only lead to controversy. He condemned the harassment of restaurants, saying, “There is a lot of positive in Atlanta.”
He said the goal of his video reviews is to “give back to the community” and help business owners. “If you want me to come, please understand that I will be honest.”