There’s a small depression in the dark hardwood floors of the coatroom at Baldwin’s Station, the Sykesville railroad-stop-turned-restaurant. Not long after Stewart Dearie opened in 1997, an elderly woman approached the owner and said, “I just want to let you know you have a dip in your floor.”
Expecting a verbal tongue-lashing, Dearie was pleasantly surprised when the woman continued and announced proudly, “There’s nothing wrong with that floor of yours. No sir, that’s where my husband’s chair rolled back for 40 years.”
The woman’s husband had been the train master.
“It’s one of those stories where you get goose bumps,” says Dearie.
Stories have the power to transform a piece of property into a living, breathing character, and Baldwin’s Station is quite the character. Overlooking the Patapsco River along the Carroll/Howard County line, the station was built in 1883 as the second stop on America’s first railway line, the B&O’s “Old Main Line.” Designed by renowned Baltimore architect Ephraim Francis Baldwin, the Queen Anne-style building operated as a train station until the early 1970s (the structure lay dormant until 1991, when it first opened, under different ownership, as Baldwin’s Restaurant).
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Baldwin’s Station’s past is very much present; in fact, to borrow from William Faulkner, “It’s not even past.” Fixtures from bygone eras have not so much disappeared as evolved. A custom-built wine cellar now stands in the unique space where the train master once sat—windows to the left and right allowed him to spy locomotives approaching from east or west.
“The Waiting Room,” a Victorian-style dining room, served as the actual waiting room for women and children, while the pub area functioned as the men’s waiting room. The hand-carved bar is lined with a sampling of Baldwin’s 50 single-malt scotches (a nod to Dearie’s Scottish ancestry). Vintage photos hang from soft peach and sage painted walls, and you can almost hear the murmur of men in bowlers discussing the news of the day, the sound of tobacco juice ringing into the bottom of a spittoon.
A second dining room, “the Freight Room,” with its exposed brick and 20-foot-high ceilings, is home to Baldwin’s popular Thursday night concert series, co-produced with Baltimore’s Uptown Concerts. Folk, jazz, bluegrass, and Celtic are spotlighted by national and local acts.
Décor, live music, seasonal menus, and weekly specials—including the Chef’s Wine Dinners (a six-course meal with wine pairings created by Executive Chef Eric Yeager, Executive Sous Chef Nicholas Smith, and customers)—are all part of what Dearie calls giving “the wheel more spokes”; the cultivation of an experience not simply for the palate alone.
“Clearly, your lunch menu, your dinner menu, the service—that’s got to be one of your main spokes, and it’s got to be exciting,” says Dearie, a Sykesville native and former manager of the Conservatory Restaurant at the Peabody Court Hotel in Baltimore and of Antrim 1844 in Taneytown. “[But] when people come here, we can talk to them about more than just food because we do more than that.”
A trip to Baldwin’s Station isn’t complete until a freight train pounds the “Old Main Line.” The sight and sound is glorious, particularly during live shows.
“It is pretty good when a musician has the wherewithal to think about it when the train rolls around the corner,” says Dearie, a musician himself. “Maybe they have an old train tune, a blues tune, and they stop what they are doing and launch into it, and the crowd just erupts. They eat it up.” (Full disclosure: Years ago, I performed at Baldwin’s Station, and a train came through in the middle of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” And, yes, it was pretty cool.)