When a food critic comes to a city that is proud of its dining scene, restaurants and their devotees take notice. But rarely does a traditional reviewer cause as much excitement as Atlanta has seen with the recent visit of Keith Lee, a food obsessive with a vast army of 14 million followers on TikTok.
Mr. Lee, known for his ability to revive a small business with his legions of fans, was often frustrated with what he believed to be odd rules at different restaurants.
“Butter’s a dollar? At a breakfast place?” he asked in a video on his first day in Atlanta, eating takeout in his car. Mr. Lee, who is based in Las Vegas, mostly reviews independent, mom-and-pop restaurants, many of them Black-owned. He often orders takeout and has his family pick it up, so he does not receive star influencer treatment.
Mr. Lee has made videos from Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles, but the response in Atlanta has been notable. For many of his followers there, his critiques appear to have opened a valve for their long-held gripes with some of the city’s restaurants.
The grievances include surcharges for items like hot sauce or syrup and the lack of options for reservations or pickup orders. Some of the complaints involve rules that are common in many other cities: for example, a requirement that an entire party be present to be seated.
But something about Mr. Lee’s videos has touched a nerve with some Atlanta diners, who called for change on social media. “I hope this is a wake up call to some of these restaurants,” one TikTok user from Atlanta commented. “The extra ‘rules’ are getting crazy.”
Even the rapper Cardi B weighed in, saying on Instagram Live on Monday that she can “barely order in Atlanta restaurants” unless she drops her name. Of course, restaurants have long given 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 one video. “Social media aside, I’m a normal person.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote this week that the city had been “Keith Lee’d,” noting that his tour of the city’s food scene had coincided with another seismic dining event: the announcement of Atlanta’s first Michelin-star restaurants.
Some restaurateurs saw real results, for better or for worse, after Mr. Lee’s visits. One restaurant, after a glowing review, sold out for the first time in its history and had to extend its hours. At another restaurant where Mr. Lee had a frustrating experience, its inbox quickly filled with vitriol and threats.
Those are the two sides of what some have called the Keith Lee Effect.
Mr. Lee did not respond to messages left this week. A former professional mixed martial arts fighter, he has said that he started using TikTok as a way of tempering his anxiety about public speaking. He began posting restaurant reviews on the platform in 2021.
His account quickly found a large audience that responded to his willingness to try restaurants off the beaten path. Mr. Lee posts reviews from his home or his car and frequently tries places suggested by viewers or restaurant employees. He prides himself on his neutrality, he has said, never accepting special treatment and sometimes tipping thousands of dollars. This year, he collaborated with the influencer known as MrBeast, who has more than 88 million followers on TikTok, to support struggling restaurants.
That wide reach can be a blessing to business owners, but it can also spark heated debates.
The Real Milk and Honey, a brunch spot in College Park, Ga., took the brunt of viewer criticism last week. Mr. Lee expressed his frustration with the restaurant’s complicated ordering process and its offer to seat him sooner because of his celebrity status, which he declined.
“I hope this is a wake up call to some of these restaurants,” one TikTok user wrote. Many agreed, but others said they found the rules necessary to maintain a business.
After Mr. Lee posted his video, Shauna Neely, a spokeswoman for the Real Milk and Honey, said the restaurant received cruel and vitriolic messages on social media.
“Brunch is a vibe everywhere, but in Atlanta it’s huge,” Ms. Neely said. “We have to have these house rules in place because we are extremely busy.”
But, she added, “the only thing negative are the comments.” The attention has attracted more social media followers and patrons, she said. The restaurant also said on Instagram that its posted rules for dining were outdated and have since been updated to reflect changes.
Social media comments quickly grew out of control when another restaurant with a similar name, Milk and Honey, was confused for the one Mr. Lee had discussed. According to a screenshot Mr. Lee posted on TikTok, the owner of that restaurant said that staff members had been receiving death threats.
Mr. Lee implored his viewers to refrain from such behavior. “Under any circumstances, that’s not OK in my eyes,” he said.
On the other side of the Keith Lee Effect are restaurants like the Dining Experience in Fairburn, Ga., where a positive review has given the restaurant new energy.
“We sold out Saturday and Sunday,” said Kyesha Johnson, the owner. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened.”
In wrap-up videos, Mr. Lee responded to some of the uproar about his visit, which had coincided with a family trip, saying he would be reluctant to tour other cities if it only resulted in controversy. He condemned harassment of restaurants, saying there was “so much 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 I will be honest.”