Michael Horne
Taverns

The Safe House’s Timeless Appeal

For nearly 50 years, the espionage-themed bar has been packing in eager tourists and locals.

By - May 20th, 2014 02:26 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
Safe House. Photo by Audrey Jean Posten.

Safe House. Photo by Audrey Jean Posten.

In 1966 attorney David Baldwin seized on the spy craze of the era and opened a gimmick-ridden espionage-themed bar in downtown Milwaukee. He figured it might run its course in seven years or so. Baldwin could not have done better patterning a tavern after the U. S. Mint, since he’s been coining money out of the place since it opened.

It’s been seven cycles of seven years, and the Safe House is still riding strong, exploiting the never-ending popularity of the theme. The bar / restaurant’s success is as dependable as the James Bond franchise, and people keep coming back for more, just like they do for the movies. Some six million customers have walked through the door since 1966.

The Safe House is hidden on a back street with the name of Front Street, located behind a door labeled “International Exports, Ltd. (est.1868).” It has a capacity of 248 within its maze-like 5,000 square foot interior. Sales are 42 per cent alcohol and 48 per cent food. It is not every tourist attraction that offers $31 steak dinners, but Safe House pulls it off.

The tavern side of the operation features cocktails and beers served in front of a giant map, with auxiliary bars opening as demand requires. Grab your drink and take a look at the staggering abundance of espionage-related material on the shelves and walls, and on every conceivable surface. Why, here is a machine gun, courtesy of John Wayne. Here is the table where Mick Jagger sat before being thrown out. Somewhere, Madeleine Albright sat, but was not thrown out. Caroline Kennedy was here, and look at her now — she’s an ambassador, in charge of a whole bunch of spies in Tokyo.

The Safe House walls are hung with many curiosities. Some are as old as original James Bond posters, others include hundreds of books on spy themes, some quite recent, all from the collection of Baldwin, who, at age 84, still owns the operation, lock, stock and barrel, under its corporate shell of “Tradco, Inc.”

A book by Shauna Singh Baldwin gets its own case in the library. It was written by Baldwin’s wife, who also administers the tavern’s website, perhaps the best bar website in the nation.

Wanderers in the club can move from environment to environment ranging from an urban townhouse to a sandbagged ditch, with stops in the desert and jungle en route. One of the best spots, though, is in the main bar where a closed circuit television monitor records the antics of those who come to the bar without knowing the password.

Folks in that state of affairs, and they are numerous, are required to perform some stunts that inevitably make them look foolish, before being admitted through a secret passage. As soon as they enter, they are already well-known to the customers who have been enjoying the free show.

Secret Phone Booth. Photo by Audrey Jean Posten.

Secret Phone Booth. Photo by Audrey Jean Posten.

There are other amusements as well, including a door that opens to a brick wall, a pay phone with pre-recorded alibi noises and, to accompany the secret entrance, a secret exit.

Despite the tourist theme, the Safe House does appear to get a group of regulars from the neighborhood. The Pabst Theater is right across the street, and theater goers have been known to frequent the place before and after shows. Some skip the show entirely, relying on the entertainment available at the bar, which often includes magic tricks.

Like any successful espionage operation, the Safe House has a second identity. It also operates as The Newsroom Pub, with a separate entrance at 137 E. Wells St. The Newsroom Pub is the hangout of the Milwaukee Press Club and is the site of its regular Newsmakers Luncheon series.

Unlike the Safe House, it has windows opening to the street and a rather casual pubby feeling. The Newsroom Pub is also the home of a most remarkable collection of autographs assembled by the club, including signatures of nearly every president since its inception in 1885. Significantly, the signatures were all gathered inside club premises, which has moved around over the years. (One exception was Franklin D. Roosevelt who was unable to access the club’s interior when he paid a call. The autograph plaque was brought outside to his car for him to sign.)

THE RUNDOWN

  • Location: 779 N. Front St., Milwaukee
  • Telephone: 414 272-2007
  • Website: www.safe-house.com
  • Facebook: International Exports Ltd. (Safe House) Milwaukee.
  • Description: Espionage-themed Downtown bar popular with tourists, with a smattering of local regulars.
  • Hours: 11:30 a.m. – 2:00 a.m. daily, close 2:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday mornings.
  • Food: Bar food up to and including steak dinners.
  • Signature Drink: The “All Hail,” available only by reservation at $40 per serving. Called “Hail to the Chief” for men and “Hail to the Queen” for women, the beverage is served with great flourishes, and the recipient is given a special seat at the bar.
  • Capacity: 248 in 5,000+ square feet.
  • Restrooms: 2 mens, 3 womens. Score one for the ladies!
  • Year Established: 1966
  • Year Building Constructed: 1883 as Adolph Meinecke Toy Company.
  • Estimated Annual Rent: Over $90,000.
  • Street Smart Walk Score:  98 out of 100, “Walker’s Paradise.”
  • Password: Required. So what is the Password? [Redacted by directive of the Central Intelligence Agency.]

0 thoughts on “Taverns: The Safe House’s Timeless Appeal”

  1. Anonymous says:

    So many young people (including my niece) have spent their coming of (drinking) age birthdays at The Safehouse. It’s a special place and I hope it’s around for many more generations!

  2. Anonymous says:

    My first few times at The Safe House were running Live Role Playing Games there during GenCon. I got to know many of the waitstaff during daylight hours. What an amazingly fun bunch of people. Then, my friend and her husband got married at the Pabst Theatre and had their reception at The Safe House. It was incredibly and most assuredly the best wedding reception I have ever been to. The people who didn’t know all of the fun secrets of the place got to enjoy it while the rest of us just danced, ate cheese cake and celebrated with the bride and groom. But the absolute best time there was when I took my mom and preschooler son for lunch. My mom took my son to the bathroom and still doesn’t know how I know she was observing the picture of Burt Reynolds. I don’t think I will ever tell her. This will always be my favourite place in Milwaukee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *