‘No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to dine’

Erin Brown
Heather "Agent Hi-Tops" Converse is assistant general manager at SafeHouse Chicago, 60 E. Ontario St. Converse formerly worked at the original SafeHouse in Milwaukee.

By Jonathon Sadowski

After walking Through a literal hole in the wall past the identity scanners and security cameras, I sat in the Cone of Silence, scanning my surroundings for hidden weapons and watching satellites soar overhead. Agent Cane approached and gave me a simple mission: Eat.

Nestled beneath AC Hotel, accessible through a false wall in an unassuming office, SafeHouse Chicago has been feeding hungry spies since March. A Milwaukee food scene staple since 1966, the original restaurant was sold to the Marcus Corporation in 2015.

Now six months into the Chicago location’s run, SafeHouse, 60 E. Ontario St., invited The Chronicle for a complimentary meal and a chance to discuss the future of the mom-and-pop shop turned brand.

Customers, or “agents” as the themed restaurant’s staff says, must first either provide a password for entry or complete a mission to prove their allegiance to “Central.” Because it was our first mission, Chronicle Photographer Erin Brown and I were tasked with performing the “YMCA” dance three times at increasingly demanding speeds before we were allowed to descend into the spy lounge.

“People come here and they expect an experience,” said Heather Converse, assistant general manager of SafeHouse Chicago. “Some people look at us and they’re like, ‘Are you crazy?’ and other people are like, ‘Oh, this is hilarious.’”

Converse’s spy alias is “Agent Hi-Tops”; all restaurant employees go by codenames, and patrons must fill out a name tag with their own secret identities. I went by “J.K. Tiongson,” and Brown took on the pseudonym “Babe Ruthless.”

Business at the restaurant is conducted in spy jargon, with food items called “rations” and drinks “libations.” Meals are referred to as “missions” and receipts are jokingly labeled “damage reports.”

Between courses, customers are free to walk around, complete scavenger hunts and investigate the more unique elements. For example, a sexy Daniel Craig picture adorns the wall in the ladies’ restroom, with a leaf over his crotch. Should someone touch the leaf, an alarm goes off both inside and outside the bathroom. Likewise, whenever the toilet is flushed in the men’s room, a call of “package delivered” plays over the restaurant’s loudspeaker.

Chicago residents have been eating the corniness up, with the getaway’s popularity rising steadily since it opened, said Converse, who formerly worked at SafeHouse Milwaukee. The new location has been so successful, she added, that Marcus Corp. has plans to expand in the near future. The location and time are classified pieces of intel, but it will likely open within the next year, Converse said.

Marcus Corp. CEO Greg Marcus, who Marcus Theatres moviegoers will recognize from his signature filmed monologues that play before movies, is a big proponent of spy flicks and hugely enthusiastic about making SafeHouse a larger, national brand, Converse added.

Having been to the original SafeHouse in Milwaukee about 10 years ago, I remembered it as a cool experience but did not look back with any strong feelings—good or bad—toward the food. As such, I did not have particularly high expectations going into the meal, but my order of Rybat—short rib braised in Guinness and stacked atop mashed potatoes—was as tasty as one of James Bonds’ watches is dangerous.

The SafeHouse even tied with Au Cheval for best burger in this year’s Chicago Magazine Readers’ Choice poll, a testament to the culinary skills of head chef David Hardy, aka Agent Pickles.

With the move to Chicago and a revised menu comes an expected upcharge compared to the original location. Had SafeHouse not covered the meal—one appetizer, two entrees, two desserts and a Pepsi—it would have rung up at $81.10 after tax, and that’s not even taking a tip into account.

Ouch. Cover blown. Not the friendliest place for a college budget, no matter how good the food is.

But that’s the price one pays for experiential dining. A magician wandered around the place “hypnotizing agents” with his tricks; props, airplane parts and interactive screens lined the walls; and the password is hidden in two places around the hideout for those who would like to return.

In terms of sheer design, the SafeHouse was a sight to behold. Everything down to the “secret exit”—a corridor of alarmed lasers, which I tripped several times before I made my escape—is convincingly orchestrated to immerse customers in the world of espionage.

“The best decision David [Rupert, SafeHouse’s original owner, who died six months after selling the restaurant] made was to sell it to somebody who believes in the brand so much,” Converse said. “In order to work here, you have to be a little quirky, you have to be a little weird and you have to embrace the culture and really love it.”