D Magazine in recent days has been inundated with messages about viral food critic Keith Lee’s plans to come to Dallas. If you’re on TikTok, this is kind of a big deal. But it could be huge for certain small business owners.
Lee is an ex-MMA fighter turned viral TikTok dining critic and influencer who is on a food tour across America. He finds a locally-owned restaurant, orders a take-out meal, and eats in the car. Lee records his thoughts on the food and broadcasts it to over 15 million followers. A family member usually picks up the meal from inside the restaurant to prevent him from being recognized, and he says he pays for his own food.
Lee’s videos quickly blew up, and the after-effects of his visits, dubbed “The Keith Lee Effect”, linger. Restaurants with great feedback have seen business boom overnight. Others, not so much. Lee caused a stir recently when he cut his Bay Area tour short after suffering an allergy attack from a meal that came from an unnamed restaurant(“I truly don’t believe the Bay is a place for tourists right now,” he said. Ouch.)
Lee is not a traditional food critic, so his comments on the meals aren’t exactly descriptive. He’s grown his audience by being relatable and funny. He’s a guy who loves good food, and he has an admirable goal to highlight small businesses.
So why is Dallas giving him the worst restaurant suggestions?
On Lee’s TikTok announcement, comments flooded with arguably good and arguably very bad restaurants. Same with his Instagram reel. Yesterday, the Dallas Morning News posted to Instagram a list of restaurants Lee should visit after asking followers and readers for suggestions via its Instagram story. On the list: Carbone, Komodo, The Mexican, and more. The expensive, chain-heavy selections were met with swift backlash.
“Whoever made this list has no idea who Keith Lee is.”
“He goes to family own [sic] places that need the exposure. This list is not it.”
“These are not Dallas restaurants. These are restaurants that happen to be in Dallas. There’s a difference.”
Those who religiously watch Lee’s videos know he has criteria for his chosen restaurants. He emphasizes mom-and-pop businesses. In his video announcement for his Dallas visit, he said he’d be making some changes to his reviews. He has created categories for restaurants: ones with good food and service that need marketing help, “local favorites” chosen through polls on Instagram stories, and diversity in cuisines and ownership.
The Morning News’ post—again, which was generated from reader and follower responses—highlighted many that don’t at all fall into this criteria. Carbone is an Italian restaurant with a massive following from New York City. Komodo is a splashy, Asian-inspired restaurant from Miami. The Mexican comes courtesy of the parent company of Mission Tortillas, and, according to our dining critic, is not good.
Some of the spots in the News’ post—Trompo, Cris and John, Zoli’s Pizza, and Mike’s Chicken—certainly fit the bill. But several users noted that the list isn’t reflective of Dallas’ local restaurants that are owned by people of color. Chef Tiffany Derry, who owns Roots Southern Table, Roots Chicken Shak, and the highly anticipated Radici, chimed in: “This seems very out of touch without any initiative on your part to understand who he is and why he goes to the restaurant he chooses.”
On Friday, the Morning News posted a story in response to the negative feedback and took it as constructive criticism. Suggestions made by Derry, June Chow of Hello Dumpling, Val Jean-Bart of Val’s Cheesecakes, and more include Cookie Society, TLC Vegan Kitchen, and La Casita Bakeshop. Instagram followers rejoiced: that’s more like it.
Lee’s visit is not the most important thing to happen to Dallas dining. But his reach and audience can mean an immediate jolt to the city’s tourism and its local and Black-owned restaurants. Janel Prator, owner of The Puddery in Houston, told Bon Appétit that her business went from five to 10 customers on the weekends to more than 100 a day after Lee reviewed her bakery. On the other side, Lee’s visit to Atlanta was one of his worst trips. He went to nine restaurants, walked away empty-handed twice, and, in the nicest way possible, called his entire experience in Atlanta “insane” and “unique.” Let’s hope Dallas dodges that same treatment.
I’m not going to give Keith Lee suggestions. He likely has an entourage and research team who will comb through his comments and DMs to find the right spots for him. They’ll likely notice in the comments of his Instagram reel that many have told him to steer clear of the Morning News’ first post. Woof.
I’ve been hopeful that most people are sending Lee excellent suggestions. Take Trompo, the taqueria in Oak Cliff run by Dallas’ Luis Olvera. Trompo’s near-closure a few weeks ago was a result of $36,000 in late rent payments, despite it being one of the most beloved taco shops in the city and one of our 50 Best Restaurants. The closure was staved off by a GoFundMe, which was promoted by DallasTexasTV, and a Hail Mary pop-up. Trompo could fall into any of Lee’s categories, and it could seriously benefit from something like this.
High-dollar restaurants don’t need the publicity in the same way. Influencers and Dallas diners will happily dine at those places. The focus for Lee should be the place down the block with the great breakfast tacos, the shop with giant cold-cut sandwiches that’s been open for decades, or the family-owned seafood joint where you have to order through a window. (Although I’m pretty sure Lee has a shellfish allergy so maybe not that place). Share the restaurants you love—the ones that make Dallas, Dallas.