I knew going into this adventure that I’d be drinking a lot of beer. Given the brewing heritage of Milwaukee and the city’s deep German roots (and it being home to, oh, I don’t know, Miller Coors, the original Pabst, and no less than nine separate microbreweries), the prospect for encountering good beer on the shores of Lake Michigan was looking pretty good.
You know where else has good beer besides Milwaukee? Belgium. Which is why it came as such a welcome surprise that the very first place that I dined while in the great city of Milwaukee was at Cafe Benelux, a superbly located outdoor patio in the heart of the Historic Third Ward which features the food–and most importantly, beer–of Europe’s Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) region.
With a beer menu that features in the neighborhood of over 200 choices of beer (some of which such as the $12 T. Gavehopke Extra wander into the let’s-get-weird, 12% alcohol range), I deferred to the expert selection of the well-versed staff.
The consensus? I needed to try a Piraat. Why? Because according to many beer enthusiasts it’s considered to be one of the best beers in the world. Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe Johnny in this epic YouTube video devoted entirely to Piraat.
After throwing back an appetizer of fried bitterballen and a shockingly filling ham and brie sandwich, my empty Piraat glass steered me in the direction of ordering a Hoegaarden, one of my all-time favorite Belgian beers. As fireworks heralding the start of Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival, echoed off of the red brick buildings of Milwaukee’s downtown, seagulls coasted above the strands of lightbulbs adorning the rooftop patio and reminded me that, unlike Brussels, I was still less than a mile from the nearest body of water and beach. It may only be a lake, but if I close my eyes for a moment I am transported to a coastal retreat in rural Belgium where Traapist beers adorn the menu and gulls coast freely on the breeze above.
Little did I know that in the span of 30 minutes I would be transported from the beers and cuisine of Western Europe into a cell block from Communist Germany–yes, I’m still in Milwaukee, and no, the 10% Piraat has nothing to do with this.
Across Milwaukee’s downtown in a secret location (all advertising is still done via word of mouth), I found myself having to recite a password to gain entry into The Safe House, Milwaukee’s famous spy-themed bar which also serves as one of the world’s greatest collection of Cold War replicas and artifacts.
In all of the 60 countries I have visited across the globe, I can honestly say that I have never been anywhere quite like Milwaukee’s Safe House. For one thing, all patrons are referred to as “operatives” and the entire environment of the sprawling complex is devoted to giving you the feeling that you are deeply entrenched inside a secret Cold War safe house where anyone around you could potentially be a spy. The bar is broken up into the “American sector” as well as the “German sector”, and separating the two is a real section of the Berlin Wall. There is also a cell door from a real East German prison where a former US spy was once held. With bartenders who perform magic tricks, trap doors which lead to nowhere, and a shaken martini which must first traverse 600 ft. of plastic tubing running across the ceiling, The Safe House is easily one of the most uniquely-themed bars I visited in all of Milwaukee, and potentially the world.
Now, how do I find the door out of this place?