In 15 years, Baldwin's Station has gone from the start-up stage to the forefront of fine dining.
On Monday, April 16, the Sykesville restaurant was named Maryland's Favorite Restaurant for 2012 at the 58th McCormick and Company Stars of the Industry Awards Gala. The annual event, held at Martin's West in Baltimore, honored the state's top restaurants in 14 different categories.
The Restaurant Association of Maryland tallied thousands of votes cast by the dining public. When the votes were counted, Baldwin's Station ranked ahead of five other finalists from around the state.
The restaurant on the Carroll-Howard border finished in front of two Baltimore institutions, Peter's Inn and Red Star, and three other suburban establishments, including Box Hill Pizza and Crabs in Abingdon, Bethesda's Passage to India, and Houlihan's in Columbia.
It was a crowning achievement for owner Stewart Dearie and others who were on hand to receive the award, including his wife Ridia, two of the restaurants' chefs, a manager, and Baldwin Station's events coordinator.
"I felt exuberant," said Dearie, a longtime Sykesville resident and the founder of Baldwin's Station. "The votes were cast from consumers that I go to every afternoon or evening, and ask if they are enjoying themselves. They were the ones who voted for us, and that means the world to me.
"After they called our name, we were high-fiving and slamming into each other," he said. "When you have 800 to 900 people from your industry applauding you, it doesn't get much better than that. It's a pleasure to see my chef happy and smiling, and my staff proud of the work they do."
More than 6,000 votes were cast by the dining public. The top 10 were selected in online voting, then narrowed to six by a nominating committee consisting largely of industry professionals.
"Our mission is to bring recognition to the best and brightest in the industry," said Sarah Cunningham of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "The awards are based on talent, popularity with the dining public, and what the restaurants give back to their community. We also want to make sure that all regions of the state are well-represented."
Baldwin's Station wasn't the only Carroll County restaurant to receive accolades. Dean's Restaurant, a Hampstead institution for decades, was chosen for the Maryland Hospitality Hall of Honor.
But the biggest award of the night belonged to the Sykesville institution that has received positive reviews since it opened in 1997.
The 15-year-old restaurant occupies the old Sykesville train station. The brick walls give Baldwin's Station a unique feel, and its outdoor dining patio offers patrons a view of the Patapsco River that serves as the dividing line between Carroll and Howard counties.
Diners also get an up-close look at the trains that frequently pass within 15 yards of the patio, further helping to cement Baldwin's Station as one of the more unique dining experiences in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
"I could give a customer a burger to enjoy in a room with four white walls, or in a room like this," said Dearie. "It's the same burger. Which one will you enjoy more?"
A 32-year veteran of the industry, Dearie learned the business at some of the area's best restaurants. He served as the maître' d at the Conservatory Restaurant, in Baltimore's Peabody Court Hotel. Dearie survived several management changes in nine years before being let go in 1993. He wasn't out of work for long.
"Some customers of mine that owned a bed-and-breakfast in Taneytown wanted me to come in and open their restaurant," said Dearie. "After a while, people said that I should do it myself."
After four years at the Antrim 1844 in Taneytown, Dearie found a banker that could help purchase the old Baldwin's Restaurant on Sykesville's Main Street. Dearie was confident that he could make changes and open a completely redone restaurant.
"There was an ugly sign out front that said 'Baldwin's Restaurant: A Unique Dining Experience'," he said. "The sign looked like it should be in front of the Columbia Mall. I wanted to open this restaurant with the same quality service that we'd had at Antrim, but with a more relaxed setting and less expensive menu. I wanted to make it a place that people could come to often. "
Just two weeks after opening his new restaurant, Dearie had an interesting encounter with a customer at the bar. The elderly lady pointed a finger at him and said, "You're the owner, and I have something to say to you."
Taken aback, Dearie feared the worst.
"She dragged me by the shirt, pointed at the ground, and said, 'There's a dip in your floor right there,' " he recalled. "I told her that this was a train station that was built over 100 years ago.
"She told me there was nothing wrong with the floor, but the spot marked where her husband's chair rolled back and forth for over 40 years — he was the train master here. When you see people enjoy the building like she did, it makes the effort to please them so much easier."
Dearie knew that good food and the unique setting of a converted train station would draw customers. Spurred by the booming economy of the late 1990s, Baldwin's Station quickly became a destination for diners. In January 1998, it was recognized by Baltimore Magazine as one of the area's 75 Best Restaurants.
"We exploded onto the market," he said. "From 1997 through 1999, the economy was good and the growth was fabulous."
Despite the early success, Dearie wanted to add something different to Baldwin's Station. He expanded the restaurant's mission to include a regular schedule of musicians and other entertainers.
Several acclaimed artists, such as Jonathan Edwards ("Sunshine") and Bill Danoff ("Afternoon Delight" with the Starland Vocal Band), have made regular appearances at the Sykesville landmark. Baldwin's Station also holds live performances of classic stage works, ranging from "Cinderella" and "Peter Pan" to Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream".
"The artists feel like they're part of the family, and love the way we take care of them," Dearie said. "It's an intimate room that seats about 60 to 70 people, with a sound system already set up. They'll even come down into the audience and play acoustically."
The menu is as diversified as the entertainment. Dinner selections run the gamut from vegetarian ravioli to filet mignon, while those who come for lunch can choose from paninis and wraps to omelets. Dearie credits much of the restaurant's success to its staff, led by executive chef Darrick Granai.
"It's the whole package, with the food, the building, the ambience and the town," Dearie said. "I know that we have a good product and a fabulous staff. I have a set of chefs to whom I hand the keys and tell them that it's their machine, and that goes a long way. I do the same thing with my managers. I listen to them, and they care as much as I do."
He also appreciates the help and support given by his wife, Ridia, and their children, Allison and Lydia. Dearie met his future wife when both were on the staff at Kings Contrivance in Columbia, and Ridia was training him.
"She joked to her friends that he seems like a nice guy, but I don't think he's going to make it in the restaurant business," Dearie laughed. "She's been an immense help here, especially with the website."
Dearie realizes that the Restaurant Association's major award will draw more customers. But he and his staff plan to work as hard as they did when they opened 15 years ago.
"We've learned that you don't take anything for granted," said Dearie, who was born in Washington and raised in Silver Spring and Clarksville. "The work that you put in will bring success back to you. Now it's time to take care of the consumer that this award will help bring to the restaurant."