CHICAGO – Trying to recreate the magic of a quirky and beloved institution can be tricky, but based on a couple criteria, I think it’s, ahem, safe to say that Marcus Corporation has done just that with the Safe House Chicago, in River North at 60 E. Ontario St.
First, on a recent early evening Saturday visit, the place was packed.
And, second, halfway through our visit, my youthful dining companion declared, unsolicited, "This is the best restaurant ever."
You don’t have to be in the intelligence community to interpret those clues.
The original Safe House was opened in The Tunnel, a former jazz club (that had previously been The Chanticleer Tavern and the club house and cafe of the Liederkranz German men's choir), on Front Street in Downtown Milwaukee in 1966 by David Baldwin, whose spy-themed bar and restaurant full of unexpected twists and memorable decor became legendary here for 50 years. And it remains one of THE places for a visitor to go in Brew City.
Upon his retirement in 2015, Baldwin sold the place to the Marcus Corporation, which spit-shined the original location, reopening it in 2016, and launched the Chicago eatery in early 2017.
For veterans of the Milwaukee Safe House, the Chicago version will feel familiar, yet foreign; similar, yet different.
The entrance – a lone red door with not-so-subtle signage hints – is located on busy Ontario Street, but once you step inside the lobby, the experience becomes very similar: you either know the password and pass right on through, or you don’t and you must complete a "clearance test" (yes, televised for everyone in the restaurant to see) to gain entry.
Through the "Get Smart"-style secret door and down into the restaurant you go, where the spy theme is everywhere, as you’d expect.
There are retro-looking ginornmous computers, a selfie booth, a tunnel to crawl through, a section of an airplane, world maps and those screens all eerily televising the same thing: incoming patrons flapping their arms like chickens or vogueing in 007-style poses. Other screens show spy film clips.
The Interpol Bar is equipped with push-button sinking bar stools, there are replicas of Berlin Wall graffiti, spy posters galore, periscopes.
There are nooks and crannies, of course, and in one of them, during our visit, sat a magician who wowed young and old alike with card tricks and sleight of hand.
I know what you’re wondering, and yes there is a naked man on the wall in the women’s bathroom (I sent a spy in to check), but it’s not the same one.
Hotel and restaurant designers and builders Gettys Group and Epstein Global created a venue that doesn’t attempt to create a perfect replica of the Milwaukee Safe House, but rather a space that pays tribute to it.
And, if my visit was any indication, it’s working. The Safe House was bustling, especially with families, and kids and adults could be seen making their way around the place seeking the answers to a list of clues that servers bring to each table.
Never wowed by the food at the Milwaukee location, I approached the Chicago menu with some trepidation, and found that again – while my cocktail was quite good – the food isn’t the real draw.
I likely erred by not ordering the award-winning burger, which won Chicago Magazine’s "Readers’ Choice Best Burger of Chicago" in 2017. (This year, the Safe House also nabbed Cheers Magazine’s "Best Innovative Independent" BevX Award.)
But, I should add, that no one seemed to care too much; not a soul around me appeared at all disappointed. In fact, smiles and laughter abounded, not least with my dining companion who had an absolute blast and even learned a few card tricks from the magician.
If a quiet, gourmet meal is what you’re looking for, it doesn’t take a spy to realize this – like the Milwaukee Safe House – isn’t the place for you.
But if you want a different experience, and a really fun night out, The Safe House in Chicago is – again, like its elder sibling – absolutely perfect.
Then, you just need to find the exit (remember to hold on to your name tag until you’re out).
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.