Atlanta has moved on from Michelin fever to processing a takedown of the city’s dining scene by TikTok food critic Keith Lee, which has gone viral. Last week, Lee left some restaurants reeling from the scorched-earth comments campaign of the influencer’s army of 14 million followers. But Atlanta’s Keith Lee moment may have a more profound impact than the arrival of one of the most prestigious dining guides in the world, causing some restaurants and bad actors to overhaul their customer service strategies sooner rather than later. Diners are fed up — and apparently so was Keith Lee.
Lee’s reviews have since sparked conversations about poor customer service and rules at restaurants meant to belittle diners, the role of social media influencers as food critics, and how diners themselves need to take responsibility for their own restaurant choices.
Wait, Who is Keith Lee?
If you’re not familiar with Lee, you’re not alone. Most people who don’t use TikTok have never heard of him. The TikTok sensation and former MMA fighter typically evaluates restaurants, many Black-owned or independently owned, by ordering takeout and having his family pick up the food so people don’t recognize it’s him or offer him preferential treatment. He then eats and reviews meals in his car, rating each dish on a scale of 1 to 10.
Lee’s straightforward reviews are uncomplicated, endearing, and, most of all, relatable. He’s good-natured and compassionate on camera, making reviews feel as if they’re candid endorsements from a friend. This approach to food reviews has gained Lee millions of followers, who come for the authenticity he conveys on camera. It’s also led him to nab brand partnerships with DoorDash and numerous media appearances.
What happened in Atlanta with Lee?
Lee rolled into Atlanta from Las Vegas with his family the week the Michelin guide dropped here, going more viral with his food reviews than even he probably expected. During visits to nine restaurants, including the Real Milk and Honey, Atlanta Breakfast Club, Lil Baby’s the Seafood Menu, Toast on Lenox, and Old Lady Gang, the Detroit native was met with eye-popping add-on charges ($1 for butter, anyone?) and questionable service rules worthy of an eye roll. He even left empty-handed (twice) because takeout wasn’t available, opting not to dine in when it was offered to him to avoid skipping ahead of people still waiting for a seat.
The Real Milk & Honey taste test would you try it ? #foodcritic♬ original sound - Keith Lee
What Lee discovered in Atlanta is what locals already know: The city has more than a few clubstaurants giving ATL a bad name by imposing inequitable rules on service and takeout, while also offering deference to social media influencers and famous patrons. Locals generally know how to navigate such establishments, where vibe and clout seem to take priority over food and service.
Lee called what he experienced in Atlanta “unique” and “insane,” but also reminded people why he posts these videos. In one of his final TikToks on the Atlanta matter, Lee ended by highlighting three restaurants where he experienced good food and service: Jamaican Jerk Biz, Juci Jerk, and the Dining Experience. All three are owner-operated and often struggle to attract customers due to limited marketing resources. These restaurants saw an exponential increase in business from customers flocking to eat there following Lee’s reviews.
Does the Drama Matter? Yes and No.
What Lee is doing as an amateur food critic is nothing new.
Public-facing, self-proclaimed food critics have been a part of the restaurant world for two decades, with personal blogs, sites like Yelp, and social media giving rise to influencers like Lee. For what it’s worth, the very restaurants who rail against Yelp and its ilk often invite social media influencers to the table as part of their marketing plans, where they eat, drink, and record, often on video, their experiences.
Responsible social media food influencers post hashtags in their copy indicating the visit was sponsored or by the invitation of a restaurant, sometimes stating that fact as a disclaimer on the post or in the video. Not all influencers are this transparent about their partnerships with brands and restaurants. Be wary of anything on social media that looks too good to be true, where nary a negative comment about a restaurant is uttered by the person behind the camera and it’s all fun and cheese pulls and hands with perfectly manicured nails cupping cocktails. These are just a few signs that a restaurant in question might have paid for some play, and as such, diners should continue researching to determine where and how to spend their time and dollars.
Lee seems to have taken a page from the professional food critic’s playbook, attempting to remain as anonymous and unbiased as possible during reviews to experience the same treatment and service as a regular diner might. He says he doesn’t accept free food when he’s spotted in a restaurant or ask for preferential treatment. Unlike Lee, professional restaurant critics often visit places multiple times to evaluate consistency in service and food, and don’t reveal their findings until after their final visit is completed. While Lee does receive messages from restaurants inviting him to evaluate, he claims he doesn’t announce when he’s coming to a restaurant, or if he’s coming at all.
Of the nine Atlanta and metro Atlanta restaurants Lee visited, four are heavily hyped on social media, celebrity-backed, are known tourist spots with hourslong lines, and/or push vibes over food and service. And while Lee did visit four mom-and-pop restaurants in metro Atlanta — the Dining Experience, Juci Jerk, Jamaican Jerk Biz, and the Bodega — his positive experiences expressed in the individual reviews of these restaurants were mostly overshadowed and drowned out by the noise generated online from commenters on the more unfavorable reviews of some of the other restaurants.
All the disclaimers in the world telling your followers to not leave bad reviews on Google and Yelp or contact the restaurants couldn’t save one restaurant from being caught up in the Keith Lee drama in Atlanta. After Lee posted a video about his less than stellar experience at the Real Milk and Honey in College Park, which posted a now-deleted video attempting to throw shade at Lee and his review, people confused that unrelated restaurant with Milk and Honey on Cascade Road. This resulted in a few people leaving bad reviews online and apparently leveling death threats toward the mistaken restaurant’s staff and managers. Even if they had targeted their ire toward the right restaurant, this behavior is unacceptable and Lee rightly called it out. Now a clearly frustrated Lee finds himself being called out on the authenticity of his restaurant reviews in Atlanta and has yet again taken to TikTok in response.
Should Lee and other social media food influencers, however, be held responsible for inadvertently causing harm to the businesses they review? What about restaurants like Milk and Honey, now collateral damage due to a misunderstanding? And is there a better way to engage with a restaurant whose policies might alienate the very diners who want to support that establishment? Lee’s reviews have sparked public conversations about all of the above, and the need for better customer service from restaurants.
Restaurant criticism has reached an inflection point, one where professional food critics and social media influencers are now running in the same circles, as more and more media outlets lean on social media platforms to share their critiques and drive reader engagement. Similarly, the role diners play has become much more expansive since they too can record and share a recounting of their own restaurant experience.
With all of these lines now blurring across restaurant criticism, it would be easy to consider the situation an exclusive conflict between those swimming in social media clout and professional critics backed by publications.
In Atlanta, this is a conflict centering on restaurants’ past, present, and future as the city and metro area continue developing as dining destinations. Longtime Atlanta residents can recognize many of the clout-obsessed, vibe-focused restaurants Lee critiqued. These residents are well aware of the oft-too-strict laundry list of rules, strictures, and dress codes found at such restaurants. Did Lee actually know what he was in for with these restaurants before heading to Atlanta, or did he just not do enough research before arriving to inform how his dining experiences might go? Regardless, Lee used his public platform to say the quiet part out loud to his 14 million followers once he was finished reviewing: Do better, Atlanta.
Ultimately, criticism and food reviews at their best always seek to serve readers and the community. Critics are meant to hold those with power accountable; sometimes, that privileged entity is a business, restaurant, or employer — and sometimes they’re diners who expect too much or give too little.
Digging through the avalanche of comments left on Lee’s TikTok reviews and other social media platforms, locals were stepping up in the defense of ATL restaurants with other suggestions, offering Lee a chance to get a taste of the real Atlanta during his next visit. Many were in agreement with Lee, too, on his critique of Atlanta and its food scene. Either way, criticism focuses on loving a city and its restaurants enough to both celebrate its strengths and speak on its weaknesses — even when that means calling our beloved city (and some restaurants) on its bullshit.