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What Keith Lee’s Sudden Exit From the Bay Area Says About Our Struggles

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TikTok food reviewer Keith Lee, pictured at a WNBA game in 2023, held a mirror up to the Bay Area's problems this week in a video posted to 15 million followers. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

I

didn’t want to start the year like this. I’m not the type of person who likes to feed into negativity, and I want to be clear: I absolutely love the Bay, where I was born and raised since 1987. I have the old Bay Bridge tattooed on my right arm to remind me where I come from — a symbol of what we’ve long stood for as an interconnected region.

But at times, I hate it here, too. And after viral TikTok influencer Keith Lee suddenly cut his visit to the Bay Area short on Thursday, just twelve days into 2024, I can’t help but wonder: Are the Bay Area’s struggles actually worse than we’ve been telling ourselves?

Lee, a former MMA fighter from Detroit, has built up a national following for his blunt, plainspoken food review videos, which he films inside his car. With more than 15 million followers on TikTok, the young tastemaker can completely change a restaurant’s fortunes with a single positive mention — especially the largely unknown, mostly Black-owned mom-and-pop businesses that he reviews. He’s been dubbed “the internet’s most famous food critic,” and there’s even a term to describe a restaurant he’s visited: It’s been “Keith Lee-d.”

So, when Lee announced that his first review tour of 2024 would be a trip to the Bay Area, local food lovers were positively giddy. But less than a week after he arrived, Lee unexpectedly cut his visit short, citing lackluster food, an allergic reaction and general shock and dismay at the living conditions he found in the Bay.

By all accounts, it’s unlike Lee. He’s generally seen as conscientious, with no history of mindlessly tarnishing small businesses, let alone diminishing an entire region.

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But the Bay Area unsettled him. This is the first time Lee has ended a trip on short notice, explaining, in a farewell video, that he “[doesn’t] believe the Bay is a place for tourists right now… the people of the Bay are just focused on surviving.”

@keith_lee125 Bay Area taste test 💕 would you try it ? 💕 #foodcritic ♬ original sound – Keith Lee

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lthough I’m a food writer by title, I practically never watch food videos online, and I generally don’t care if Lee — or any other critic or influencer — thinks a greasy pouch of French fries should be scored a 7.2 or a 6.7. Ironically, I don’t really want to hear in detail about the food itself. Food either smacks, or it doesn’t. Rather, it’s the people, and the contexts — social, racial, economic, cultural — that feed my sense of wholeness, and which requires nuance and perspective to appreciate.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for why, despite the Bay Area’s sparkling reputation as a food destination, Lee seemed unable to find very much that was even half-decent to eat. But when he implied, for basically the first time in his career, that the Bay Area is too out of pocket, too distressed, too dysfunctional, too disarrayed, too unsafe, too everything except whatever trendy food-take people wanted to hear, I felt him. His seeming dissatisfaction with the Bay Area wasn’t even mostly about the food. It was about our living conditions.

I was born in the Bay to immigrant parents, raised in the Bay with hella types of friends and have seen a lot of shit here. But you can’t tell me that right now, in 2024, the Bay Area isn’t more overpriced, overcrowded and unlivable than it has been at any other point in my lifetime — even the food is often outrageously expensive.

And that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Check the housing prices. The other day, my dad genuinely asked me why I don’t consider buying a mobile home for my family because it’s “still affordable.” My wife and I have a son, and we both have master’s degrees. We’ve worked tremendously hard as first-generation college graduates. And we can’t afford much more than a room or two here. Many people here don’t have the time or money to chase after the most trending meal. They don’t even have regular access to meals. Period.

How many more people living in tents do we have to pass by before we reach a collective tipping point? I know I’m not alone in feeling a sense of dystopia, even as a proud local. Neither is Lee in feeling that way as a curious outsider. And his comments are bringing that to light in a compassionate way.

Thursday night’s social media feeds provided ample evidence that Lee struck a nerve. I’ve never seen a piece of food content stir up more debate among Bay Area thought leaders, particularly in the local hip-hop community. Oakland lyricist Tajai from the mighty Souls of Mischief chimed in, agreeing with Lee: “This is not to be a doomsayer or be negative about the Bay, but I think we’ve gotten used to some shit, y’all, that is not normal.” In a brief video, he references a major Latin American city that’s twice the size of the Bay Area — and how we have a “600% higher homeless rate” than a “developing nation.”

Popular San Francisco artist Stunnaman02 got in on it as well: “Keith Lee’s synopsis of The Bay was necessary. Humbling, environmentally The Bay is a shell of itself. Overpriced, not as crackin as it has been in the past, and economically Oakland is being stripped unfortunately.”

East Oakland rapper ALLBLACK said he was “embarrassed.”

Of course, other people made jokes about it all. Some posted clips from movies like Next Friday (“we live raw”); others affirmed Lee’s synopsis but with extra spice (“I 100% agree. This mf [Bay Area] is raggedy!”); more than a few called out his poor choices (“respectfully keith lee kinda be eating anywhere”); and some just playfully owned the crappiness of it all (“Bay Area can’t never keep anything, the Raiders, The A’s, The Warriors, Keith Lee. Nothing.”).

And Dr. Ameer Hasan Loggins, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, pointed out that “some of y’all are focused on the food, when Lee was focused on the effects of structural inequality.”

These are all valid takes. And they all speak to a certain part of my Bay Area soul, upbringing and loyalty. There’s even a part of me that is like, man, who even is Keith Lee, and what does he know about us and our food scene? And there’s been no shortage of Bay Area defenders hopping online to lightly condemn, or at minimum question, Lee’s take.

Rexx Life Raj’s manager, Ari Simon, stuck his chest out for the Bay: “I fw Keith Lee but I think him cutting early reflects more on him than us… Sounds like bro bought into doomloop narrative and psyched himself out / was doin anything with not a lot of help lol (that sf burger spot).” Ari concluded that the issue is with Lee’s poor taste, rather than the Bay Area’s shortcomings (“I’m either blaming lack of palette [sic] or lack of planning”).

There were plenty of comments along those lines — those who took up arms for our zip codes and were, to a degree, unwilling to hear Lee’s polite criticisms. But what many upset folks are missing is that Lee wasn’t necessarily saying the food here is trash. Instead, he’s fixated on something more important. He’s saying that the state of our day-to-day living — crime, safety, congestion, cost, tents, burned-out cars — is, in his eyes, precariously unwell, and bordering on social crisis.

But he also gave the Bay some deserved props, too. How could you not?

“The people from the Bay were absolutely amazing, and I’ll never forget the hospitality and the love that y’all showed me,” he said. Facts.

Women laugh and smile at a street fair in Oakland.
Festival-goers attend First Friday in Oakland. (Oakland First Fridays/Alicia Rodriguez)

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he Bay is special. It is diverse, flavorful and full of sauce. We dance a little different. This is the home of where game recognizes game. But the Bay Area is also struggling, and that’s okay to admit.

I’m glad Keith Lee used his platform to bring attention to what really matters. It’s not just about what dish makes a good Instagram story. It’s not just about the succulence of those adobo wings at your favorite Filipino joint. It’s also about the conditions in which we are living — the amount of hours we’re working, the rent we’re paying, all while seeing our friends get pushed out, watching our parents and siblings sacrifice and make that longer commute just to stay on the edges of it all, having new neighbors move in and old ones get evicted, dodging a weaving car on the freeway, constantly generating side hustles, hoping that your window doesn’t get bipped even when there’s nothing in your car.

Lately, more than ever, I’ve been wondering: Is the Bay Area going to be okay? The gas and housing prices will come back down, right? People in need will receive care and support services, right? We can’t just keep running around and speeding through red lights while it’s all getting harder to sustain our families everyday, right? I guess we are all just either ignoring the madness, or participating in it.

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At least for one food influencer, who’s extensively traveled the country and seen his fair share of both struggling and thriving areas, the Bay Area in its current state doesn’t seem to be living up to its full potential and has become unwelcoming to many outsiders. And right now, maybe we should stop biting into a burger for a moment — no matter how good we think it is — and chew on that instead.

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