January 23, 2015

The Safe House in Milwaukee

Safe House exterior

photo by: Matte, Flickr

The Safe House entrance is marked by a sign that reads “International Exports, Ltd.” and located on Milwaukee’s N. Front Street, which is actually an alley.

International spies. Secret missions. Espionage. Codes. Martinis that are shaken, not stirred.

If this all sounds like your idea of a fun Saturday night, head for Milwaukee’s Safe House -- but cover your tracks. The concealed bar and restaurant has been fulfilling patrons’ undercover dreams and serving up Wisconsin favorites like batter-dipped cheese curds since 1966, all under the guise of International Exports, Ltd. Ask a local for the password (you’ll need it after 8 p.m.) and go down an alley and through a nondescript door for a clandestine dining experience.

Once you’ve given the correct password and gained entrance through a secret passage, you'll be met in the Interpol Bar by a truly impressive collection of authentic spy memorabilia gathered by owner, David J. Baldwin over the years. A cell door from an actual KGB prison, a booth that hides diners from sight, and the Unique Martini -- a drink which is shaken (not stirred) by traveling 600 feet around the bar through a pneumatic tube -- are just a few of the distinctive features waiting to be discovered.

Visitors can explore the oak-paneled British Intelligence room and a red Hong Kong-themed section, with bamboo-hung booths modeled on fixtures that Baldwin saw at the Hong Kong Hilton Hotel. Framed James Bond posters line the walls, and signs that point toward “Agent Debriefing,” “CIA Cover Phone,” and other mysterious locations appear around every corner.

The wall puzzle at the Safe House

photo by: Ashleigh Bennett, Flickr

Moveable puzzle tiles on a wall in the Safe House’s interior rearrange themselves with the push of a button.

Secret passages from the neighboring Newsroom bar, operated by the same owner, allow patrons to move between the two spaces undetected, and depictions of the restaurant’s official mascot YugYps (“Spyguy” spelled backwards) peek out everywhere, from menus to napkins. Keep an eye out for decorative architectural elements like doors, elevator gates, and ironwork that have been salvaged from demolished Milwaukee buildings.

No spy should ever leave a safe house hungry. Diners can choose from a selection of dishes with names like the meat-free Better Stop Meating Like This (arugula, radish sprouts, ripe tomatoes, roasted cucumber, zucchini and yellow squash, rolled in a tortilla and served with tomato vinaigrette) or, at the other end of the culinary spectrum, the Soviet Defector (beer-braised baby back ribs, basted in spicy barbecue sauce.)

The drink menu is laden with choices like the Penultimate (“never your last”); a mix of strawberry vodka, amaretto crème de cocoa, and cream; and the Moore’s S’more (a nod to James Bond actor Roger Moore); a beverage that promises to help you “fondly recall camp memories you never knew you had.”

Despite its best efforts to remain covert, the Safe House has gained a following and become a beloved Milwaukee landmark over the years. Scenes from the movie Major League were filmed there, and it's a perennial favorite on lists of must-do activities for Milwaukee visitors.

Exit door at the Safe House in Milwaukee

photo by: Greg Briggs, Flickr

The Safe House exit door.

As if all of the secret agent allusions and espionage kitsch weren’t exciting enough, Safe House also plays host to a bartender-magician five nights a week who specializes in card tricks. Carousers pack the dance floor on weekend nights, and since no good spy ever came in and left through the same door, there’s a secret phone booth exit waiting for you (if you can find it) when you’re ready to call it a night.

Here are a few things you should know before hitting up the Safe House:

Location: 779 North Front St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 5 p.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

You're having: The flame-broiled Sean Connery Steak, served with herb butter, onion rings and a baked potato.

Helpful hints: "North Front Street" is actually an alley located in the city's historic riverfront district.

According to the Safe House website, "Control never turned away agents on the run because they didn't know the password." However, if you don't know it, you may have to do something goofy before you'll be allowed in. This will be broadcast to those already inside the bar via closed-circuit television.

Best Yelp review: "I love the idea and the execution of this place, I feel like a kid who can blow bubbles in their chocolate milk and drink it too."

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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