Oct 30, 2023 - Food and Drink

Keith Lee's Atlanta reviews spark backlash, debate about restaurant scene

Keith Lee with family

Keith Lee attends ONE Musicfest at Piedmont Park on Saturday in Atlanta. Photo: Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images

Atlanta's hardcore foodies exploded on social media over the weekend after TikTok food critic Keith Lee reviewed some of the city's Black-owned restaurants.

Why it matters: Lee, who is based in Las Vegas, shares his take on menu items from little-known, family-owned restaurants that don't often get headline coverage to his 14.2 million followers.

  • Millions have already watched his Atlanta reviews, according to TikTok.

Driving the news: Lee's critique of several establishments, including Atlanta Breakfast Club and The Real Milk and Honey, have ignited a larger discussion about Atlanta's dining culture, its "unique rules" and its so-called "clubification."

  • Lee said Breakfast Club staff would not take their orders — or even bring them water — until everyone in the party arrived.
  • A member of his party added that the restaurant charged them $1 for butter.
  • At The Real Milk and Honey, Lee said his family went inside to be seated, but were told the restaurant was closing early for "deep cleaning" — despite people going inside to pick up orders.
  • When he personally went in, Lee said the restaurant tried to offer a table after recognizing him, but he declined.

Of note: Lee also repeatedly expressed frustration that a majority of restaurants he tried did not accept call-in orders.

What they're saying: "In Atlanta I found some places have unique rules and this was one of them," Lee said of the Real Milk and Honey's policy.

The other side: The College Park eatery clapped back after Lee's review by posting their own TikTok of people who said they didn't know who Lee is.

  • In the video's caption, they thanked Lee for his visit and told him "there's no love lost." As of Monday, the video was removed and the restaurant appeared to have either deactivated or deleted its account.

Context: King Williams, an Atlanta-based writer, told Axios that Lee's critique of Black-owned restaurants should not be used to characterize the city's entire culinary landscape.

  • But, he said, "I do think the restaurant critique is valid in the sense that a lot of the times, the little nitpicky things — the service, the wait times, the décor – those are valid customer pain points."

Lee did not reply to Axios' request for comment.

Restaurant "Clubification"

Lee's videos and commentary about eateries' rules have also drawn focus to the fact that some Black-owned Atlanta restaurants have started feeling like nightclubs.

The intrigue: Eden Hagos, creator of the @blackfoodie.co Instagram account, used the opportunity to talk about what she refers to as the "clubification" of restaurants in Atlanta and other parts of the country in an Instagram reel posted Sunday.

What's happening: In Atlanta, some restaurants have adopted the marketing strategies of club promoters to build up their customer base.

  • Popular brunch spots are known to offer hookah, bottle service, "arbitrary dress codes" and no reservations options, so you're often waiting outside in a long line just to get a table, she said.
  • Some even have DJs playing music as if you were eating your French toast on the dance floor.

"It feels very exclusive," she said. "It creates this hype and popularity for the restaurant, but it doesn't necessarily create a good experience for you as a guest."

The big picture: Williams told Axios the phenomenon isn't surprising since Atlanta's nightlife scene has dwindled from what it was two decades ago.

  • And he doesn't think the trend will go away because it seems most club owners are not looking to open in majority-Black neighborhoods.

"I think that the clubification of restaurants is going to continue because we are not meeting that demand," he said, adding that many people just want to listen to music, dance and indulge in hookah.

  • "We just don't have any other spaces to do so."
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