I mentioned the Safe House back when I was talking about trips to Milwaukee for Wizards of the Coast. It was a natural hang out for a bunch of geeks in town for a convention. However, I did not take time to describe it, as no short blurb would do it justice, and those columns were already so long.
So, as promised, here is the story of the Safe House.
The Safe House is a spy themed restaurant and bar located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that opened in 1966. It is easily the most interesting themed bar I have ever been in. This is due to just how into the spy theme they have gotten.
First off you have to find it. Part of the fun is the amount of secrecy involved. Going here to their web site even includes an agreement to not disclose their location. Please tell me I don’t need to explain the joke on that last one.
Let’s take a step back, for a moment, and go over the experience from the beginning. First off, be warned that the last time I visited Milwaukee was in 1994, but I suspect that what I experienced then is still largely true today.
The first time I went there was with other folks from WotC in 1993, while we were in Milwaukee for Gen Con. I didn’t know what to expect, only that the Gen Con veterans said that going was a must. We took cabs, as none of us expected to be in driving shape later that evening.
The setup is interesting. First off there are no signs that say Safe House. What you do find is a door in an alley with a plaque over it that says “International Import and Export”. Going through that door, you find yourself in a small office. There is a person sitting at a desk who asks if he can help you. One of the people in my group knew the password, so we were fine. (No, I am not going to give you the password; it’s been 19 years, for all I know it is different now, anyway.)
But not to despair if you do not know the password, the person behind the desk can help you out, as long as you pass a test of loyalty. The test can vary: you might have to try and use a hula hoop, you might have to put on a wig and sing and dance to Stop in the name of Love, or you might have to put on bunny ears and hop around the office singing Little Bunny Foo Foo. No matter which of the events transpire eventually the person behind the desk will be satisfied and will press a button, causing a bookshelf to open up. Through the bookshelf is a hallway reminiscent of Get Smart. At the end of the hall way is an automatic door that opens into the bar proper. If you had to perform a test of loyalty you may find yourself getting a round of applause, as there is a video feed from the office that can be viewed in the bar.
Even with pictures, you couldn’t really do the Safe House justice by describing it. The interior design is a bit of a maze. It has three floors (well, really four, but I will get to that). Back in 93 there were three bars, which I assume is still the case. The main one (right by the entrance), a small one on the second floor, and a medium one of the third floor. There were various seating areas including a dining area, smaller dining tables styled as holding cells, a seating area with booths featuring beaded curtains, and traditional bar seating. There were also pneumatic tubes that connected the bars, through which they could send each other messages, but usually there were only glow sticks moving through so that there was some visible action.
But it was actually the other theming elements that really made the Safe House fun. A simple one was that the bartender at the small bar on the second floor was also a magician. Others were more involved.
There were two different alarms that would go off periodically. The first sounded like an air raid siren. It went off whenever anyone ordered a drink called the Spy’s demise. This was a drink that had (and likely still has) a limit of one per night, due to how strong it was, and which had to be ordered at the third floor bar, so they could keep track. The siren went off as soon as you were handed the drink.
The other alarm sounded more like a bank alarm. I asked our waitress what it was about, and she told me that in the women’s restroom was a nude picture of Burt Reynolds with a flap covering his crotch; the alarm would go off whenever someone lifted the flap.
There was another special drink called the Hail to the Chief. You did not order it for yourself. It was a drink your friends would order for you, and had to be done at the main bar. When it was ordered, the recipient was escorted from their seat and taken down to the basement and placed in an interrogation chair. They would then be asked questions, mostly personal and some just oddball. Once the interrogation was over they were handed their drink.
And then the chair they were in would rise up and carry them to the main floor where they found themselves facing the bar. A screen at the bar would start playing a video and the captions in the video would make use of the information learned during the interrogation.
Two other elements, that I personally enjoyed, were the payphone booths. Again this was 1993/94, in the days before everyone had a cell phone. The first of these was called the alibi phone; it was a normal payphone booth, except that it was fairly well soundproofed, and it also had a panel with a dozen buttons that were labeled with things like “bowling alley”, “airport”, or “Italian restaurant”. You could make a call, and press a button to cause a recording of background noise (appropriate to what you selected) that would play on loop, during your call. The other phone booth was what I called the escape phone. You went in, picked up the phone, and put in a quarter. The phone gave you a number sequence. You entered the sequence into the phone and a wall opened to a stair case that lead you to the basement, past the interrogation room, and out of the bar. It was one of three exits the bar had.
These were not the only touches the Safe House had, but I don’t want to give away everything and, in nineteen years, I am sure there have been changes.
What I remember most about going to the Safe House was the fun that came from the total dedication to the spy theme, not just in how it was set up, but from the staff as well. You could have the best themed bar in the world, but if the staff wasn’t supporting it, it would just fall apart. Fortunately, the Safe House did not have that problem. The staff was engaging and pleasant.
In the years since, I have often thought about the Safe House, and wished that we had a place like it in the Seattle area. The problem is that you need to have a community that can support such a place. Locally, we now have a lot of geek themed restaurants, like the AFK Tavern that I wrote about previously. But these are general geek themed, and not as specific or as immersive as the Safe House. I think the reasons are that it would be a huge risk to make something like that fly and you need regular patronage. Seattle is not known for its night life and even well liked clubs and bars will fold, and so a specialty place would be a hard sell. I think the same can be said for a lot of cities, which is why places like the Safe House are so unique.
As for the Safe House being the best themed bar I have ever visited, this is true, but my sister, who never had a chance to visit it, challenges that she found a better one. Time Scare in New York, which is a horror themed bar, with a year round haunted house attraction.
Until either I finally visit New York, or she visits Milwaukee we may never know.
But if you find yourself in Milwaukee, I highly recommend seeking out the Safe House.
Just don’t tell them I told you to.