Let Keith Lee Eat

Photo: Gilbert Flores/Penske Media/Getty Images.
When former MMA fighter and influencer Keith Lee initially started reviewing local restaurants in 2023, he probably had no idea of the impact he would have on the food scene — or the amount of chaos it would repeatedly cause on the timeline. His goal was simple: highlighting delicious but obscure (often Black-owned) eateries in the hopes that his reviews would attract new patrons. 
And the plan worked. Before long, grateful owners of previously down-on-their-luck restaurants hit the feed to share positive updates. Food trucks were suddenly selling out. Lines were out the door and wrapped around the building. Reservations were booked weeks out. All thanks to a man sitting in his car, speaking straight to the camera. 
“I got it, let’s try it, and rate it 1 to 10,” he now famously says at the start of each review.
@keith_lee125 #stitch with @Calabash African Kitchen Calabash African Kitchen taste test 💕 would you try it 💕 #foodcritic ♬ original sound - Keith Lee
As the videos gained steam, Lee decided to officially take his reviews on the road, making stops in several different cities throughout the year (including Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York City). Because he’s based in Las Vegas, he needed to outsource his list of must-visit hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Lee asked, and the internet answered, flooding his comments and DMs with food options of every variety that he just had to try. Open to eating just about anything, Lee took those suggestions in stride, and many of the must-try foods were actually a hit with his palate, and the Keith Lee effect kicked in almost overnight for some restaurants. But other recommendations were met with less than stellar feedback from the social media personality. 
In Atlanta, a haven for lovers of southern-style brunch and oyster aficionados alike, Lee shared that his food tour had been somewhat disappointing, citing mediocre customer service as the issue (though when he did get to eat, the food slapped). In New York City, Lee found himself eating — bafflingly — a salmon chopped cheese. And when he landed in the Bay Area, he had an allergic reaction to something that he was served so severe that he had to cut his trip short. Foodies from these cities were incensed by Lee’s personal opinions on their local eats, taking personal offense as if the food was made by the loving hands of their own grandmothers. Some disgruntled Bay Area folks accused Lee of taking “cheap shots” at their hometowns in his discussion of some of the social issues (like economic disparities and homelessness) he observed in San Francisco and Oakland. New Yorker were united in their outrage at his decision to get a baconeggncheese from Queens. The Real Milk & Honey, a well-known Atlanta spot, even fired back at the influencer in a since-deleted Instagram post. (The owners have since apologized for the unnecessary shade.) The consensus in many of these cities? Lee wasn’t giving them a fair shot. 
@ivangtv Keith lee is getting cancelled from the bay area #keithlee #bayarea #foodreview #foryou ♬ love nwantinti (ah ah ah) - CKay
But was he being unfair, or was the food just…not up to par?
To be fair, I may be somewhat biased; I’m from Houston, Lee’s second favorite stop on his food tour where he had, in his own words, “one of the best pieces of chicken [he's] had in a long time.” (Shoutout to The Breakfast Klub!). Houston is one of the best cities in this country — we gave y’all Beyoncé, Megan thee Stallion, and Simone Biles, so you're welcome — but the restaurant owners here don’t have two heads. What they’re doing in Houston or in New Orleans (Lee’s winner for the best food on his tour so far) can be replicated anywhere. And really, the discourse shouldn’t even be about Lee; we should be side-eyeing restaurants that aren’t as customer-focused as they ought to be and the food industry as a whole. 
Lee’s popularity and relevance as well as the backlash that he’s faced on his journey to find good eats across the country actually underscore an ongoing conversation about what many perceive to be a drastic decline in customer service culture. Going out to eat in 2024, when food prices often feel like minor financial portfolio investments, is a privilege — but getting your money’s worth at these restaurants shouldn’t be. You’re opening your purse, so yes, the experience should be a good one. Yet, even with new dining establishments popping up by the day, it can be shockingly tricky to find a quality place to eat. Restaurants flood our algorithms with TikToks promising chic and sexy Instagram-worthy ambiance, only for us to get there to find that the food isn’t bussin’, there’s an anti-Black dress code, the service isn’t all that, so on and so forth. And in many cases, any feedback or critique is unfortunately seen as “hating.” 
Some might say that it’s even bigger than the restaurant sector — across industries, customer service just isn’t as high of a priority as it used to be. It’s the reason why many people are learning how to do their own hair in order to avoid the modern hair stylists and their laundry list of booking policies, or using TikTok to become self-sufficient nail techs. Shoot, it’s for that same reason that so many people are abandoning their subscriptions with big streamers like Netflix and Max as prices go up just for the content we love to get canceled or, worse, disappear from the platform permanently. We’re just not getting the same bang for our buck anymore, and with the cost of living increasing, every single cent counts. If we’re going to spend our money, it ought to be for good reason. Because despite what the parasite in your stomach is telling you, there is absolutely food at home.
Ultimately, Lee is doing far more good than harm with his deadpan reviews. As the food tour continues, I hope that he’ll find more hidden bangers than he does flops. But if he doesn’t like something you love, don’t take it personally. He’s no Gordon Ramsay, busting into people’s kitchens to call them idiot sandwiches — he’s just a guy (with 15 million followers) looking for something tasty to eat. Just like us. 
Dallas, you’re up next. Put up your best, most delicious contenders for consideration. May the food gods be on your side.

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