Tuesday, May 21, 2024

What Did TikTok Food Reviewer Keith Lee Think of New York City?

You might not know TikTok’s favorite food critic by name, but trust me: You’re about to. He made national news last month when he visited Houston and left nothing but scorched earth behind after he visited Atlanta. Keith Lee, the Las Vegas-based food reviewer, is back in New York City.

Why should you care? Lee is to Black-owned restaurants what Dave Portnoy is to slice shops: He orders takeout from businesses, then rates their food on a ten-point scale. Between Instagram and TikTok, more than 16 million people are watching. His fans line up at the restaurants he reviews to show support and try the food for themselves. That boost in business is so reliable it has its own name: “the Keith Lee effect.”

When Lee announced this week that he was coming to New York City, local restaurants didn’t miss a beat. Restaurant owners and their fans left hundreds of comments with suggestions and self-promotions. Check the comments section of his latest post: Your favorite spot might be there.

The tour started on Wednesday at Taste Budz, a four-month-old deli in Jamaica, Queens. He ordered several sandwiches and rated them in a video recorded from the passenger seat of a car. The salmon chopped cheese was “over-seasoned to the point that it was salty” (7.5 out of 10), and the bacon, egg, and cheese came on a “stale” bun (4 out of 10). The video already has three million views on TikTok.

Daquon Bowers, an owner of Taste Budz, hadn’t heard of Lee before the review. He was cooking at his deli when he got the call: “You got reviewed by Keith Lee,” a friend said. Who? The deli is now seeing record sales. “It is extremely busy,” Bowers said on Thursday evening. The following morning, the rapper Waka Flocka Flame stopped by.

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Lee shared a second video on Thursday, in which he rated slices from three Manhattan pizzerias: Joe’s Pizza, Prince Street Pizza, and Bleecker Street Pizza, mistaking the latter restaurant for John’s on Bleecker Street nearby. Prince Street won out with a 7.7, but overall, the slices were “underwhelming.”

New Yorkers are already protesting in the comments. “Whoever gave Keith these recs did him dirty,” the TikTok user @katiefaz24 wrote. Charlie Puth, the popular singer-songwriter, chimed in, too: “Keith you need to go to Brooklyn for the best pizza.”

Lee, a 27-year-old former MMA fighter, started posting restaurant reviews in 2021. He tries to remain anonymous to avoid special treatment. His family orders for him, but they call on speaker phone or share how they were treated, so he can evaluate the service, too. Lee has said that he doesn’t accept anything in exchange for reviews: He just goes where his fans tell him and shares his experience.

A lukewarm review can draw a crowd, but a good one can change everything. Restaurants that Lee has reviewed have come back from the brink of closure and found first-time fans. In Houston, where Lee visited earlier this month, one highly rated restaurant had to temporarily close after fans cleared out the shop.

The spotlights are significant for small, independent businesses, which are often often overlooked in national award categories. The last time Lee was in town, he visited Cuts and Slices, a popular pizzeria in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Its owner, Randy McLaren, recorded him as he reviewed the restaurant’s oxtail pizza. “Keith Lee rating = Michelin star in my book,” the caption says.

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Of course, the “effect” goes both ways. When Lee visited Atlanta earlier this month, a series of critical reviews made national headlines and sparked a small identity crisis in that city’s food scene. He encountered add-on charges and strict rules; twice, he left a restaurant without food because takeout wasn’t an option. His most controversial review resulted in a restaurant apologizing and taking “internal corrective actions.”

Lee is based in Nevada, but this summer he took his show on the road — and showed that what happens in Vegas, doesn’t always stay there. He visited New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston in quick succession. For fans in those cities, the ratings carry some regional pride: Houston is “immaculate.” Atlanta was… “unique.”

What will he think of New York City? The internet is about to find out.

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