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….