How a TikTok Food Critic Accidentally Caused Chaos in Atlanta’s Restaurant Scene

Lifestyle

Keith Lee has been known for his straightforward and blunt food reviews on TikTok — content that’s built him a following 14.5 million deep, and dozens of small business owners have credited him with saving their restaurants. But when Lee and his family made a trip to Atlanta last week for a food tour, drama immediately sparked larger conversations around the city’s food scene, which has become known for its restrictive rules and long wait times. So when Lee pulled up looking to try and rate some food, he found himself focusing more on whether Atlanta’s biggest restaurants have the customer service to back up their online popularity.

Formerly an MMA fighter, Lee has had a swift rise on TikTok starting in 2021, thanks in part to his focus on uplifting small businesses. In his home of Las Vegas and during trips to popular food locales (including Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and Chicago), Lee has gone to smaller-owned restaurants that have reached out directly or areas locals have told him are staples in the community to try the food and “rate it one through 10.” After he became a known face, the TikToker began sending his family into restaurants first to ensure he would not be recognized and given special treatment. Following a positive review from Lee, restaurants have reported an immediate uptick in sales, long lines, and new customers excited to try the food. But in Atlanta, the force of Lee’s following was met with an even bigger, immovable force: Atlanta restaurants and their arbitrary rules, which can include things as small as no take-out orders, limits on dine-in times and party size, and as large as changing hours and closing dates without reason or warning.

In the biggest of his nine videos about the city — which have been viewed over 95 million times — Lee expressed that at multiple restaurants, he had a hard time ordering ahead, experienced poor customer service, or his family was initially turned away only to be offered a table when the restaurant realized they were with Lee. Even when he was clear in all of his videos that his reviews were not meant in any way to disrespect the establishments he visited and that he was choosing the restaurants based on outreach or follower recommendations, Lee said his family received callouts from the restaurants that wouldn’t serve him, online threats, and so many negative responses accusing him of tearing down Black-owned businesses that he was hesitant to do another food tour again. 

“There was so much positive in Atlanta that was shunned by the negative,” Lee said in a response video Tuesday. “I’m going to be 100 percent honest. If you want me to come, please understand I will be honest.” 

The drama first began when Lee visited The Atlanta Breakfast Club, where there was no space to wait while being seated. They were then charged extra for butter and were only allowed to order once for the whole table. Despite this, Lee still gave the breakfast spot a fairly positive review based on the food quality. But when Lee’s family visited The Real Milk and Honey, they were unable to call in an order directly through the restaurant or on Doordash.  When they showed up in person, they were told the entire restaurant was closed despite it being during “normal” business hours. When Lee walked into the restaurant at one point, they offered to essentially reopen just to serve him, which he declined. While Lee was explicit that his review should not inspire any negative messages toward the restaurant, the video sparked an immediate debate online about other people’s poor experiences at The Real Milk and Honey. In response, restaurant owners posted a now-deleted skit saying, “And who is Keith Lee?” (The restaurant did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)

The chaos continued when Lee’s family visited Old Lady Gang, a restaurant owned by Real Housewife of Atlanta castmember Kandi Burress. After finding out there was no takeout option, Lee’s family was given a wait time of an hour and a half, a number that was immediately changed to 5 minutes when Lee was spotted taking photos with fans outside. Lee declined to eat before the others waiting and left. The restaurant did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.

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Much of the controversy surrounding Lee’s videos seemed to stem from frustration over the double standard many viral Atlanta eateries thrive on. When he visited brunch spot Toast on Lennox, staff also offered Lee a table while others were waiting for up to an hour, and, once again, he immediately declined. And he’s not alone in his experience. Rapper Cardi B talked about Lee’s food tour videos in a recent Instagram live. “I feel like Atlanta restaurants, they don’t like to make money,” she said, describing how difficult it is for her to order any food in the city without having to mention her name. Comedy videos about customer service and asinine Atlanta eatery rules were already popular on TikTok but have seen major pickup since Lee’s viral videos. “Why Atlanta keep fumbling the bag like this?” read one comment on Lee’s video. “Atlanta needed this experience,” read another.

Following the backlash to their skit, owners of The Real Milk and Honey posted a statement apologizing for the video and confirming that they are in the process of updating their house rules. “In no way were we trying to discredit anyone, if the comments came across as such, please kindly accept our apology,” the statement read.” But the drama online has already potentially changed the way Lee makes his content. “I’m going to be 100 percent transparent, 100 percent candid, me and my family will postpone touring if other cities are going to be like this. Every review [is] not going to be the best,” Lee said Tuesday. “I understand with great power comes great responsibility. God made me for this. I’m built for this. At the end of the day, I just want to eat food, walking my path. If you want to be on a journey with me, you are more than welcome.”

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