"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."

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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."