The first ''dining car'' meal I can recall was aboard a Santa Fe train heading west out of Chillicothe, Ill., probably 30 years ago. My mother and I were going to Kansas City and she was only too happy to introduce me to the finer points of traveling by train. The dining car was certainly one of them.
I don't remember what we ate, but I do recall that she wrote our orders on a small tablet and handed it to the waiter, that we shared our table with others and that the china and silver slid about as the train lurched along.
Most railroad dining cars are now long gone and the meals served aboard them are either sweet memories or nagging wish-I'd-been-theres.
Those memories and those wishes are what make dining at Baldwin's in Sykesville such a warm experience. The rejuvenated train station, with one dining room in the former freight room and another in the ''gentlemen's waiting room,'' will take some folks back and others into another world, or at least another time.
The romance of the rails is everywhere at Baldwin's, even in the menu, with its Denver Mixed Grill, Cumberland Veal, Seattle Salmon and Baton Rouge Stuffed Flounder. And in the impromptu entertainment: a Baltimore-bound freight racing through the snowy night just past the platform.
Once, passenger trains stopped here. Now, though, people come not to leave but to stay -- in our case to stay on a night when the weather made car travel so difficult that my husband and I wondered repeatedly if the trip around the Beltway and several miles out Interstate 70 was worth it.
From the moment we entered Baldwin's, it became clear that the
trip had indeed been worth the tedium.
Service was warm; cocktails, superb; the atmosphere, comfortable; the food, inventive.
We began, after drinks and the 7:17 for Baltimore, with two cups of Cream of Crab Imperial Soup ($3.50 each), a rich soup that had an edge similar to a spicy crab cake. The crab was in shreds rather than lumps and accompanied by bits of green pepper and tomato that provided the ''imperial'' character, our waitress said.
A small, but good, salad came with our dinners. The greens were tossed colorfully with red cabbage, tomato wedges and radish slices and dressed with a creamy herb mixture.
For entrees, we chose Seattle Salmon ($13.95) and Classic Delmonico Steak ($15.95).
The grilled salmon was disappointing. It was dry and a bit hard on top as if it had stayed on the grill too long. The accompanying yogurt and herb sauce was, however, delicious -- creamy, cool and savory with herbs. It improved the salmon markedly. Served with the salmon was dry rice devoid of taste.
On the other hand, my husband's Delmonico, a boneless prime rib, was tender and excellent with a light brown sauce that complemented the superb steak deliciously. Herbed potatoes were a fine accompaniment.
For dessert, we decided on bread pudding with whipped cream ($3.95) and a Turtle Dessert ($4.95), a great concoction similar to mud pie topped with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge. Whew, this would slow even the Super Chief down!
Although I had ordered the bread pudding and my husband the Turtle concoction, we switched about half-way through. I found the bread pudding a little dry; he thought the Turtle just too much. Not me; I was captivated. Likewise, he thought the bread pudding delightful.
With three cocktails, two coffees and a bottle of wine, our bill came to $76.18. Our waitress was quite accommodating throughout the meal, answering our questions and sharing bits of lore about the building.
We wandered through the rooms before heading back into the snowy night. It sure would have been nice to catch a train home.
*** Baldwin's The Train Station Sykesville 795-1041 Hours: Lunch served Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to TC p.m.; dinner served Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 7 p.m. Closed Monday.
Reservations: Requested for dinner.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Not accessible.
Smoking: No separate areas, but smokers and non-smokers are seated away from each other.