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.