During my first visit to Zou Zou’s, a clubby Eastern Mediterranean restaurant that specializes in flaming cheese platters and $130 riffs on halal-cart-style street meat, I invite along someone like me: a fellow anonymous restaurant reviewer — of sorts. As the waiter brings over a glammed-up meze platter, my companion, the person behind the TikTok account @stephtravels_nyc, whips out a device known as a Lume Cube and starts filming our appetizer.
The period of filming is not brief.
Steph — who asked to be identified by her first name only, citing general privacy as well as a corporate day job — pans her iPhone slowly around a collection of elegant ramekins: carefully swirled hummus with black garlic, kabocha squash with sliced almonds, and green tahini under white foam. The panning takes over 120 seconds. The Manhattan-based TikToker has brought along her friend Olimpia, an engineering student, to manipulate the handheld lighting as she films. Perhaps, at some point while dining out, you’ve accidentally let the flash go off while photographing your rigatoni or whatever, turning heads at nearby tables and creating a bit of momentary embarrassment? Imagine letting that flash go off for two minutes straight.
A waiter comes up, presumably to check on how we’re enjoying our first bites. This is for naught, as no one has tasted anything yet. By the third minute, Steph and her assistant are engaging in slow motion depictions of dredging soft bazlama bread through chickpea foam. The light is still on. Around the fourth minute, a manager comes up and asks us to see if we can try to blind fellow patrons a bit less, while also noting the restaurant is into… whatever it is we’re doing. I am petrified by the minor scene we’re causing, to the point that I consider retreating to a bathroom stall with a strong martini. “We’re shameless,” Steph says.
It isn’t until the fifth minute that we start eating. What had just occurred is the most intense flurry of hand posing, lighting, arranging, filming, and re-filming I have ever witnessed for a plate of crudites and dips. After another visit, I’ll end up writing a 1,000-word review, but after this single visit, Steph will put out a 30-second video on TikTok declaring the venue a “rec” (that’s good), or a “wreck.” It’s a little hobby that has helped Steph rack up more than 5 million views for her quick analyses of overlooked venues and atypically critical dispatches on what she calls “overhyped” New York City restaurants.
In world of influencing and food social media, the static shot of a stretched out mozzarella stick — its golden crust clinging to a distended band of milky curd — has given way to clips where viewers get to watch someone shove that tube of cheese into their mouth over and over again. This cultural transition — watching a cabal of food influencers adopt short-form video — is a seemingly mundane one as we hurtle further into the abyss. Yet somehow, this epicurean pivot is more tectonic and complex than meets the eye — and maybe not all that bad. Short-form videos and their lo-fi aesthetics are changing the way we value dishes in ways that are more useful to consumers than still Instagram artistry. And the rise of TikTok is shining a light on an emerging class of digital creators who have the power to change which restaurants we all pay attention to — even if short-form video isn’t always leveling the playing field for underrepresented restaurants.
All of this guerilla camerawork by Steph — with that flash that could light up the runway at an airport — and others like her might cause concern that soon restaurants are going to feel like reality TV show sets. That’s unlikely, given the effort it takes to shoot, edit, caption, and upload these clips. The debut of Instagram in 2010, even with its lower barrier to entry than videography (you just click and post), didn’t fully turn restaurants into ad hoc photo studios, notwithstanding diners occasionally standing on a chair here and there to get a sweet shot of an uni tostada.
Yet the early Instagram era, putting aside its troubling role in viralizing foods, did play a role in reshaping the restaurant experience — and our perceptions of it. It helped democratize dining a bit, in that it gave patrons a clearer and more accessible picture of what they’d actually encounter. There was, and still is, something nice about previewing every course of a tasting menu before dropping $1,000 for two. It helped inject a dose of visual transparency into an opaque slice of the New York restaurant scene. But that transparency sometimes arrived in the form of a stylized visual aesthetic, frequently a clearly lit overhead shot — aided by breathtakingly advanced phone cameras — with disembodied hands reaching out to grab shrimp off a share plate. It wasn’t quite Cezanne, but there was (and still is) a certain still-life beauty to it all.
What’s especially interesting about our imperfect TikTok world is a loosening of the prevailing aesthetic. Some of the most promoted clips shot on the video app don’t boast the same natural-light-dappled hues as popular Instagram shots. A TikTok video generally has the production value of a senior prom video. It’s rarely a work of art, but it’s undeniably functional. And for those who are tired of a certain Instagram mentality of food as a rarified object of worship, simply watching folks pick up their toro tartare or corn dogs and eat them can feel quite refreshing.
When the flaming cheese dish appears at Zou Zou’s, Steph gives Olimpia specific instructions on how high to engineer the pull, and spends four minutes manipulating the stretchy product. The greasy pulls look as real and flawed on video as they do in the West Side hotspot. By the time either of us eat the cheese, it is sludge.
Steph’s own reviews generally adhere to some of TikTok’s standard bylaws, both good and bad. They rarely exceed 32 seconds. Thumbnail photos generally boast a color palette that recalls birthday cake sprinkles. The camera seldom spends more than a second or so gazing on a single dish. Lighting isn’t so much artsy or shadowy as it is uniformly bright. And Steph’s camerawork, like that of her peers, is up close and personal; the videos portray drippy burgers and grilled meats as if your face was just three inches above a given plate.
The style speaks to what is surely favored by TikTok’s algorithms. And that can be disappointing: Search #restaurantreview or #nycrestaurants on TikTok and much of what comes up is as informative as the in-house television channel at a regional hotel chain. You’ll encounter birthday sparklers, burrata spills, spaghetti twirls, giant cocktails, anything that oozes, anything with syrup, anything with cheese, and pretty people putting food in their mouths. Most top-performing videos on these searches also generally depict a monochromatic view of the local dining scene, a vision of New York characterized by boozy brunches, Italian spots, scene-y Euro hangouts, steaks, Mexican party spots, skyline venues with Euro fare, places where cocktails emit smoke, and that eternally replicable Katy Perry pop affair of the restaurant world, the Smith (“have you been?”).
Food TikTok indeed feels trapped at times by its own aesthetic, by its proclivity for hooking our brains on predictably manufactured doses of digital uniformity. And while sometimes truly unique players end up breaking through from time to time, be it users like @HalalNYC or venues like Cuts & Slices and Kam Hing, the short form video site can sometimes serve as yet another example of how social media, rather than acting as a true forum for diversity, can have a flattening effect on how we perceive our world.
Where things start to get particularly intriguing, however, is when Steph uses a predictable style of TikTok storytelling to convey sentiments that one would be surprised to see in a standard Instagram caption. That is to say: She’s often quite critical, a welcome counterpoint to the more frothy “here’s a great spritz” zeitgeist of influencer restaurant takes. Nearly 600,000 viewers watched her hard-nosed response to a meal at the three Michelin-starred Per Se, during which she assailed the venue for its repetitiveness and “glorified Ritz cheese crackers,” a swipe at an amuse. And just under 90,000 viewed her shutdown of Via Carota, which she knocked for congealed cheeses, oily pastas, and poorly dressed salads. The 23-second take on Carota was set to the tune of Gayle’s “ABCDEFU.”
At Zou Zou’s, a server swings by with a simultaneously elaborate yet banal tableside bass presentation. The staffer unwraps the fish from its grape leaf shell, lets the steam rise, finishes it with extra virgin olive oil from a shiny spout, then deploys a bronze grinder to shower the flesh with a snowfall of freshly milled sea salt. Steph’s appraisal the fish takes about a quarter of the time of its ceremonial unveiling: “For $75, I’d skip this one.”
Such concise barbs are more in line with a style of the type of quick, useful advice one might find from a Yelp review than a professional critic struggling to balance culinary advice with unpacking uncomfortable truths on, say, gentrification or appropriation. And that’s okay, as most folks tend to seek out reviewing for practical decision-making (“should I order this steak”) rather than for deep inquiries into nebulous truths. TikTok’s propensity for blending quick videos with sometimes-AI voiceover and text overlays makes it feel like it has more potential as a reviewing platform than still photos with captions. Helping matters even more in this regard is that TikTok seems to feel quite at ease with food that simply doesn’t look good. In that way, if you look past the stunt food videos and toward some of the smarter creators, like the tongue-in-cheek VIP List or Muslim Foodies, Tiktok can feel closer to the raw and relevant microblogging of the 2010s Tumblr era.
At one point, when Zou Zou’s sends out a complimentary cabbage dish — which means there’s even more filming — I ask Steph if she ever goes more than once to a given restaurant, or whether she returns for a follow-up review following a negative one. She says she doesn’t, citing her budget and the fact that she doesn’t consider herself a critic. Indeed, whereas a professional critic is paid a salary and given a dining budget to make multiple visits and grapple with complicated cultural and contextual issues regarding a restaurant, Steph says her business generally operates in the red. She says she pays for most of her meals but adds that roughly 30 percent of her visits are comped.
As Zou Zou’s empties out near midnight, waiters bring over a smoky fire-roasted chicken with “onion cups.” The TikTok camerawork and lighting feels quicker for this course, perhaps because there are no flaming cheese pulls to negotiate, or perhaps because I’m simply getting used to this, just as a camera in a restaurant once felt somewhat anachronistic. I notice that Steph isn’t drinking. She says that it’s not so much about inebriation as it is about keeping a steady hand while filming.
Indeed, her video of Zou Zou’s shows clean camerawork. And she rates Zou Zou’s a rec. We agree to have dinner again, but since I won’t be on assignment, I’ll have a few stronger words about that light.