Monday, August 11, 2008

The Link Between Our Obsession With Spies and Beer

I'm out of town today, so this post was written back before the Great Taste - I'll get some Great Taste stuff up on Wednesday for you.

Maybe it's a rogue James-Bondian thing, but we (Americans) seem to enjoy not only our beer, but have some strange fascination with spies, and to put the two together, well, Bob's your uncle.

I ran across this Reuters article the other day and then BoingBoing ran a piece about it as well. It's about a bar in Berlin called "Stasi Bar." The bar is located near the old headquarters of the Ministry of State Security, the secret police of East Germany. Of his idea to have people sit and drink beer amongst the chotchkes and relics and reminders of a Kafka-esque iron fist, the owner of Stasi Bar says "We mean it in a satirical but serious way." But, hey, if you become a "Stasi Informant" you can get discounts. I'll take that kind of repression any day.

The Safe HouseAnyway. My point isn't about some obscure bar in the middle of Berlin that caters to tourists, but rather, I'm reminded of a spy bar in the middle of Milwaukee that caters to tourists: The Safe House.

The Safe House is a fun, ridiculous, place where you need a code word to get in the door and the website makes me promise not tell where the bar is actually located. No, I'm not going to tell it to you (but if you Google "Safe House Milwaukee, WI" they will gladly give you a map; or you can go the Safe House's website and they give up the goods for free). I was last there, geez, must have six years ago, at least. I was living in Chicago and a college friend and I drove up to Milwaukee to visit another college friend who was there on business. He knew about The Safe House.

Once you give your secret password and gain entrance through a not-entirely-obvious doorway, the place is covered in spy memorabilia and knick-knacks. There are secret passages and hidden dining rooms. It has "gambling" (you get fake money and can win more fake money that you can use to get discounts on beer and what-not). Just for giggles you should tell them it's your birthday, because the sheer manic awesomeness of the Rube Goldbergian Celebration is well worth the time and effort. Though, admittedly, it seems the entire city of Milwaukee goes there for their birthday, and by the fourth one you will have had enough. You can giggle at the cluelessness of your fellow diners via the in-house t.v. system that spies on the lost and confused.

Quite frankly, I'm amazed the place still exists, but apparently it's been in the same location since 1966. It seemed gimicky and strange at the time. And for a place that makes you give a password or face public ridicule, and makes you promise not to tell anyone else where it is ... well ... let's just say, I'm amazed the place still exists.

Now, among the many interesting things about The Safe House, the most interesting, in my opinion, is that they have their own beer called "Code Beer." I think it is brewed for them by Sprecher. And, it wasn't very good. In fact, after about the sixth (or was it seventh?) one I had a splitting headache. There's no mention or review of it on BeerAdvocate (or did "they" have it removed?). My recollection of it, such that it is, was of a light lager, something along the lines of a PBR. But, it must not have been too bad because I still have a mug (a "mason jar" with handle) with the secret password written right on the side of it.

Here's another good review of The Safe House.

But there's a funny story that goes along with this evening, and I'll try to be brief because it's not really relevant to anything. As I mentioned above, my friend and I were from Chicago and had never really visited Milwaukee before. So, he drove up, we met my other friend at his hotel, and we walked to The Safe House. At the end of the evening we got in the car to drive home and got on 94. Now, he had consumed less than me (remember, I had a splitting headache), but still had had enough to be "confused." Anyway, apparently we got on 94 going the wrong way. We didn't realize this until we got to about one-third of the way to Madison. So, we pulled off the highway, and called my then girlfriend (now fiancee), who I had just started dating and asked where we were (she's from Wisconsin, so my logic was, of course she has memorized the transportation grid of the entire state, right?).

This is, I kid you not, the conversation as I remember it. Remember, it is now about 2:00am - I woke her up.

"Hi ____. Where am I? I think we got turned around and we're still in Wisconsin. I think. Do you know where we are?"
"I have no idea. Where are you?"
"Jeff, you'll have to be a little more specific than that."
"Behind Target. John is pissing on a dumpster."
"Ugh. What town are you in?"
"I have no idea."
"Then how can I help you?"
"You're from Wisconsin. How do we get back to Chicago?"
"How did you get to where you are?"
"I think we are still on 94. But we think we might have gone the wrong direction. We were wondering if there was an easier way than just turning around and driving all the way back to Milwaukee."
"There might be. But I need to know where you are."
(an aside to John, who had finished peeing at this point) "Hey! What did the last exit sign say?"
"I don't know. I think it started with an O. Ah.Coe.Moe?"
(back to my phone)
"I don't know. Something like Ah-Coe-Wacka-Wacka? Ah-Com-Wacka-Macka? Ah-Com..."
"I have no idea where that is. I don't think you're pronouncing it right."
"I don't think so either."
"I think you just need to get back on 94 and drive back through Milwaukee."

So, we did. After stopping on the side of the road to release the evening's dinner from my inner guts back the direction from whence it came, we finally got back to Chicago around 4:30am or so.

For what it's worth to you future intrepid travelers, it's pronounced: U-Con-O-Moe-Wok. And, yes, the easiest thing to do is turn around and go back through Milwaukee.


  1. I'd never been to the Safe House until last year. On a recommendation from my friend's mother we managed to find the place in the pouring rain. Though neither of us knew the code I managed to guess and therefore avoid the CCTV embarrasment. I did find the place pretty fun, especially the men's room door that is bricked off. I don't know why, but I was fooled by that at least three times.

  2. For the record, the conversation ended more like this:

    Oh, you are outside of Oconomowoc. No, there isn't an easy way for me to tell you. Just turn around and take I-94 back.

    You forget I am fluent at tourist-ese and have experience with Ocka-mocka-wocka and its derivatives.


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