What we step into is an office, whose lone occupant warily sizes us up and begins a peppering of questions. Why are we here? Do we know the password? Are we willing to perform a clearance test?
When the screening is complete, a hidden door opens and underground trek begins. What we find is a mix of seductive, clandestine and space-age surroundings.
We are assigned seats, miserably fail a secret agent test but are allowed to stay. In front of us are a page of riddles, puzzles and secrets to uncrack.
Choices appear, orders are placed and we are released to wander. We ignore “do not touch” signs and deal with the consequences. We alter reality with selfies that transport us to Russia and the Great Wall of China. We are sworn to secrecy.
Little stays private in this dimly lit house of intrigue. That includes the comings and goings of other double agents, thanks to omnipresent surveillance cameras and screens.
There is no escaping the piercing eyes of spies, even in the bathroom.
Fans of the longstanding SafeHouse in downtown Milwaukee would feel comfortable here, for good reason. Owners of that spy-themed restaurant-bar, which the late David Baldwin opened in 1966, have duplicated the theme, spirit and interactive nature of the business in downtown Chicago.
The big difference is that the new SafeHouse feels more like a sleek, futuristic nerve center than the homey, intimate speakeasy hideout that preceded it in Wisconsin. The Marcus Corp. owns both SafeHouse locations and opened the Chicago spot earlier this year.
Among the newer site’s espionage artifacts: the flight deck from a spy plane, donated by the man who flew it during World War II, and a chunk of the Berlin Wall.
Burgers, salads and apps take up much of the lunch menu. “Mission Impossible” is a double cheeseburger with bacon, chipotle ranch and a jalapeno relish. “Mata Hari’s Meatloaf” is served over mashed potatoes and a portobello mushroom gravy.
“Who doesn’t want to escape the everyday for an hour or two and become an international superspy,” asks Greg Marcus, president and CEO of Marcus Corp., in a press release. “Fascination with the world of espionage persists in novels and movies, making the SafeHouse concept one that stands the test of time.”
Decades ago, when the Milwaukee SafeHouse was new, finding it was kind of a rite of passage for young adults of legal drinking age. Now a new, interactive SafeHouse app for smartphones has fingerprint-detecting software and adds interactive missions that are specific to the participant’s choice of the Milwaukee or Chicago location.
Look closely for the SafeHouse at 60 E. Ontario St., Chicago, and 779 N. Front St., Milwaukee. Both start a “shagadelic” dance party (think disco and Austin Powers) at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Both are open for lunch and dinner, but the Milwaukee location is closed on Monday.
It is not unusual for magicians to perform behind the bar. For more: 312-3131-007, 414-2712-007.
To deepen your sense of adventure, round up a team of your favorite escape artists and head to one of Wisconsin’s many escape rooms. Clues, alertness, critical thinking and teamwork come into play while figuring out how to bolt from premises (usually locked) within a specified amount of time.
Escape rooms are booked from Hayward to Beloit, and it’s usually a one-hour experience (less if you solve the challenge before game time expires). Some operators book by appointment only and offer one escape scenario. Others have regular business hours and multiple themes but also book private events. For example:
Br8out Escape Rooms, Sturtevant: “Houdini’s Challenge” and the “Daycare Dilemma” are family-friendly themes for challenges in which distractions and illusions rule. Cost: $25 per player, up to 10 per room. 262-498-9936
Elusive Escape Rooms, Wisconsin Dells: Across from Noah’s Ark are six choices for immersing yourselves into another world. Operators say they have one of the largest escape room facilities in the nation. Cost: $29, with two to 10 persons per room. 608-678-2388
Escape in Time, Madison: A virtual reality simulator adds an extra layer of immersion to the escape room experience. Themes range from “alien autopsy” to “captain’s cove,” and up to three escape hints are provided during the experience. Cost: $30, and a group of eight is ideal. 608-833-8463
Escape MKE, Milwaukee: Teams of four to 10 players brainstorm and scheme to beat the clock by accumulating clues, treasures and evidence that will deactivate a virtual bomb, secure a life-saving antidote or succeed in some other noble mission. Cost: $30 to $35, depending on the mission. 414-301-7183
Escape Room Wisconsin, Appleton and Green Bay: Themes and puzzles in six roooms change yearly. Degrees of puzzle difficulty vary. Teams of two to 10 play at one time. Games last 45 to 60 minutes. Cost: $25 to $30. 920-731-2583
Lake Geneva Clue Room, Lake Geneva: How hard is it to flee from “Cold War,” “railroad room” or “double agent” missions? Less than 50 percent succeed, game operators contend. Teams of up to 10 work together; with adult supervision, participants as young as 8 are allowed. Cost: $29. 262-325-2375
Tactical Escape 101, Eau Claire, Hayward, La Crosse, Rice Lake, Stevens Point: Within the five locations are 20 escape rooms. Minimum age requirement depends on the room theme (they range from the “funeral room” to “superhero escape”). Cost: $25. 715-418-0012