The TikTok opens with a shot of an egg toast with caviar. Filmed from above at Nougatine, the gleaming white restaurant in New York City’s Columbus Circle, it’s followed by footage of plate after plate of hyper-indulgent brunch fare, from spice-dusted calamari to milky French toast. A perfectly manicured hand raises a pink mimosa, and the voice that launched a thousand parody videos narrates breathlessly, starting with the now-classic line: “Sometimes you’ve gotta say fuck it and spend $80 on a finger sandwich.”
Like most videos from The VIP List, it’s equal parts awe-inspiring and outrage-bait. “Everyone’s dueting [the Nougatine video] like, ‘Eat the rich!’ and ‘This is insane!’” says Meg Radice, half of the team behind the account. “Like, yes, she did spend $80 on a finger sandwich,” interjects her partner and co-creator, Audrey Jongens. “But that was for the content so I could be obnoxious,” Radice concludes. “A lot of the stuff we do, when we do see something like that on the menu, we’re gonna buy it because it’s great content. That’s what’s going to get the views! It’s a business, we’re obviously putting that out there for a reason!”
In the world of NYC Food TikTok, these 23-year-olds are at the top of the pyramid. The food-based elitism of snarky restaurant reviews, once reserved for the vaunted pages of the New York Times, has been disrupted and decentralized: Now, countless young people—many of them transplants—have taken up a scavenger hunt in search of the best slice of pizza, the best bottomless brunch deal, the most creative cocktail. But anybody can film themselves eating a sushi roll. Nobody else has The VIP List’s gusto, their winking mean-girl bite, or, subsequently, their level of attention, with 366,000 followers and a burgeoning events and consulting business that reportedly nets them each “more than six figures.” Online, they’re Regina George, and the rest of NYC foodie girls are cutting holes in their tank tops just to keep up.
On a crisp Friday in September, I join the pair of TikTokers for one of their—dare I say iconic—restaurant reviews at the Wall St. location of the Capital Grille. Our corner is dim and the sun is dipping fast, which means—from an iPhone perspective—the lighting fucking sucks. But obviously the VIP List girls are prepared. As soon as our drinks arrive (two espresso martinis for them and a regular one for me), Jongens whips out a portable ring light and clips it to her phone. She films a shot of the drinks, a shot of the three of us cheersing that doesn’t make the final TikTok, and a shot of her sipping the It Drink of the moment with Radice. “We get death stares sometimes when we do this,” Radice says as Jongens films. “Only sometimes, though.”
The Grille is one of their regular neighborhood spots: Radice and Jongens have never lived anywhere else in the city, and why would they want to? They love the breeze off the river and how quiet FiDi is on nights and weekends. Jongens’s dog is a regular at the Cipriani Wall Street, one offshoot of the legendary Italian hospitality brand, where the doorman feeds him treats daily. Here, at the “Olive Garden of chain steakhouses,” as a friend wryly described it, they fit right in: There’s a carpet in a nice way, gleaming dark wood banisters, and an old-school bank vault door in the basement.
They’re both wearing sleek all-black outfits with matching sans serif nameplate necklaces that spell out “VIP” in tiny diamonds—which were, for the record, obtained at a discount thanks to a collab with the jeweler. Unlike online, it’s easy to tell them apart in person. Jongens is a little more soft-spoken than Radice, who’s quick to laugh and crack a joke about the fact that the menu has each item’s calorie count on it. Jongens is also the one with the eye and the ring light, but Radice still coaches her from the sidelines, talking her through a cheese pull or angling a medium-rare filet mignon towards the camera for maximum glisten. “It’s honestly an art, filming food,” Jongens said. “Especially when restaurants don’t care about plating,” Radice added. “It’s hard to deal with!”
As you’d expect, they order like consummate professionals. There's lobster bisque, lobster mac and cheese, three different desserts, and a pair of wedge salads. There are two filet mignons and a thick, flashy ribeye—“If you like it well done, you’re canceled,” the narrator says in the night’s video. My martini doesn't even make it into the final clip, nor does the second, accidental order of lobster mac and cheese, the leftovers of which I end up dragging home back to provincial Brooklyn. Watching the final video a few days later, I’m struck by the fact that I’m totally absent—which is, of course, hilarious. Instead, the meal my employer paid for is chalked up to the ability to splurge: As Jongens (or is it Radice?) puts it, “Sometimes you’ve gotta be your own sugar daddy and treat yourself to a ten-course steak dinner… It’s what we deserve.”
First thing’s first, no, they don’t talk like that in real life—with the raspy, confrontational, party-girl clip intrinsic to so many sororities and mid-aughts reality TV, with a dash of the violent hyperbolic rhetoric pioneered by people on Twitter lustily begging Harry Styles to beat them to death with a tire iron. In person, they’re relaxed with each other and attentive to me, asking me enough questions about myself and my work that I have to purposefully steer the conversation back to them. Nobody calls anything “iconic.”
From the moment Radice goes in for a hug outside of the restaurant, we enter into a barrage of friendly, hyperactive conversation that only lets up when someone comes to take our order, while we’re actively eating, or when there’s Filming In Progress. Outside of filming, I don’t catch either of them taking their phones out during dinner to disconnect from the moment and scroll; they’re engaged with the food and engaged with each other, earnestly excited to be eating, shooting, and chatting. “We were saying,” Radice told me when I returned from a bathroom break, “that we always take our friends out with us, but nobody’s ever taken us out to eat before.”
Jongens and Radice have known each other since preschool, growing up in the same Philadelphia Main Line suburb, but they weren’t really friends until high school—the same high school where Kobe Bryant took Brandy to his senior prom in 1996. Neither had used TikTok before the pandemic, when Jongens found herself stranded in Miami, finishing her senior year of college, and Radice was holed up in her FiDi 3-bedroom apartment solo after both her roommates swiftly left the city. “I would walk like ten miles up and down the hallway of my apartment and I would Facetime my friends all day,” Radice said. “And Audrey was the only one who would answer. We would have dance parties on Facetime and watch live stream concerts, and eventually got so bored we downloaded TikTok.”
On the app, they tapped into the same aquifer of content and connection other young, homebound people were flocking to. Almost immediately, they stumbled on young women who looked like them and sounded like them, reviewing the same restaurants they liked to go to. “I saw all these people in New York making videos of where to go, where to eat, and where to party, and I was just like—if anyone knows where to do all that, it’s us!” Radice said. “Plus, back then, attention was cheap. Everyone was on their phone. If you were doing something at that time, anything, people were like, ‘Wow, that’s so entertaining!’ I filmed a video at this grocery store, Citarella, and that just went so viral, even though it was a fucking grocery store because people just wanted to look at anything.”
Initially, they teamed up to post nightclub reviews—that’s where the “VIP List” moniker came from—using pre-quarantine footage cribbed from their Instagram and Snapchat stories. But they hit their stride reviewing luxury takeout at the height of the pandemic in New York City, showing off orders from buzzy food blogger staples like Sugarfish, Russ & Daughters, Tacombi, or Bondi. By the summer, once indoor dining reopened, takeout reviews morphed into restaurant reviews—which in turn opened the pair up to a wave of intense, personal criticism from people who continued to avoid indoor activity.
“Both of us had grandparents who passed away during lockdown, not due to COVID at all,” Jongens said. “But then indoor dining reopens, and people were commenting on our videos, ‘You killed your grandparents.’ Like, don’t go there!” They maintain that while going out is their passion, their choice to join the first wave of indoor diners wasn’t just about them: “We went to restaurants that nobody wanted to go to when they first reopened because part of our thing was we wanted to support as many restaurants as possible,” Jongens said. Radice jumped in, half-laughing: “I’m sorry, but are you going to go above and beyond with the government rules? No. Am I going to pay the government extra taxes to be nice? We’re following the rules, and we’re vaccinated.”
Still, the murder-by-COVID accusations are “not even the worst thing” anyone’s ever said to them, per Radice. “The worst thing was the voice memos. Someone sent us ten voice messages saying he’s going to find us and slit our throats—” “With a rusty knife!” Jongens added. “And he’s like, ‘You’ll never know who I am, you’ll never know when I’m around,” Radice finished. “It was terrifying.”
And then there are the parody videos, which copy their cadence while reviewing things like bar bathrooms or fast food locations to the tune of millions of views. Some of those parodies, Radice and Jongens concede, are pretty funny. Still, some of the comments sting. “A lot of people are bringing up guillotines!” Jongens said. “I’m like, why are you even doing that? I haven’t thought about guillotines since I learned about Marie Antoinette!”
The pair said they began plotting how to parlay virality into financial security as soon as their TikToks began attracting views. They held meetings for two, drew up business plans in shared Google Docs, and did furious outreach to restaurant owners touting their marketing skills. According to them, it worked. “Restaurants are like, ‘OK. You’ve been to all these restaurants, you know what looks good, you know what people want to see—how can I make my restaurant go viral?’” Radice said. “People comment on our videos like, ‘Oh, do you even know the cost margins?’ and stuff like that, and it’s like, No, we’re creatives. We know what restaurants want, and that’s to go viral and get people in the door!” Effectively, the duo is getting paid to have taste—the kind of taste that comes with disposable income and a six-figure follower count.
Jongens said they’ve only paid for one in eight meals since The VIP List’s inception—but they don’t take extra money to post their videos, which means they feel free to post their real opinions. Still, are they honestly representing what it’s like to live and eat in New York City? Of course not. Radice and Jongens have experimented with content that doesn’t revolve around luxury dining; it would be bad business not to give other genres a shot. But the fact of the matter, they say, is that cheap eats don’t attract viewers like their luxury content does. “People tell us, ‘Oh, you should try doing cheap restaurants!’ But when we’ve done cheap restaurants, the videos don’t do as well,” Radice said. In fact, the most-viewed videos are the ones about meals they’ve paid for out of pocket at restaurants that don’t need to work with influencers, like Via Carota or Carbone, where snagging a reservation can take months and require an American Express card. “People want to see the really bougie stuff,” she said. “Or, at least, our audience does.”
At its core, The VIP List has a vision that aligns with the one social media megacorps have for their platforms: Jongens and Radice are showing their audience things they want in order to sell them something. With their consulting work, Jongens and Radice have also managed to turn it into their sole stream of income, participating in the same symbiotic relationship between social media and the restaurant industry as their Instagram influencer forebears. Tallying up the cost of their meals in their comments section, as some detractors have been doing recently, isn’t going to shift that dynamic.
Really, the duo’s most prominent offense might be posting to an internet landscape that doesn’t believe two women who look and sound like them could possibly be in on the joke. “It’s not supposed to be relatable!” Radice said. “People get so mad about that.”
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