"The Stein is an incredibly warm place, and everyone is so tight-knit," says Belden, who celebrated her 10th anniversary working at the place last month. "The right sort of people seem to gravitate toward it."
The Duls became such regulars that they eventually found themselves giving the staff a heads-up in advance if they weren't going to make one of "their" nights.
Many watched as Mike Selinger grew from a table-waiting teen into a college graduate, then returned to run the place starting in 1995. Now 41, Mike built on tradition, expanding the menu of German beers to 10, adding live music (a strolling accordionist, Silvey Eberley, as well as a variety of oom-pah bands) and, most important, enlarging the kitchen enough to be able to open the outdoor biergarten that has become a major draw, complete with patio heaters, brewery signs and a policy that allows guests to sing as loud as they want and stay for hours.
During festivals, the place can draw 400 people a night, and customers are known to wait three hours for a table.
Not that they mind much. "You're spending time with friends and drinking beer," says Eilenberg. "It's not exactly hardship."
It's tough, though, surveying what's left after a three-alarm fire. The catastrophic New Year's weekend has passed, and Beth and Mike Selinger meet a visitor out front on a chilly, overcast morning.
Still looking dazed, they offer hot tea and think out loud.
"We couldn't even talk about this before today," says Mike, who has just returned from a stress-busting session at the gym. "Now that the adrenaline has settled down a little, we're just starting to be able to think clearly."
From the outside, it doesn't look like a total loss. Blue tarps cover holes in the roof, several windows are boarded up, and a red Dumpster obstructs the front door, but the front and west end seem relatively untouched.
"She put up a good fight," Mike says.
Officials are still investigating the cause of the fire, though it appears to have started as a result of faulty wiring just below the second-floor office.
A man driving by saw smoke pouring from the building just after 5:30 a.m. and called 911. Emergency workers were on the scene within four minutes. Forty pieces of equipment and 89 firefighters made it to the scene, according to Lt. Cliff Kooser, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, including crews from the city of Annapolis and the U.S. Naval Academy.
Because only well water is available along that stretch of the Mayo peninsula, they ran hoses three-quarters of a mile down Mayo Ridge Road, drawing water from Ramsay Lake on the South River. Some were on the scene until 11 a.m.
"Everyone was just incredible, exceedingly professional," Beth Selinger says. "We're so thankful for the heroic efforts."
Still, a walk inside shows what the owners face. In the dining room, Tiffany-style glass lamps have melted, flame-charred beams look ready to cave and sky is visible through gaping holes in the roof. (The kitchen is largely intact.)
Firefighters said the 1930s-era tin ceiling likely slowed the spread of flames. Word of the incident spread more quickly, rousing the support of a community.
"Just read the news this morning. Wonderful restaurant and wonderful people," John Creath of Pasadena wrote on the inn's Facebook page even as the fire was raging. "Hope you all can come back from this. [I'm] looking forward to visiting again in the new year."
"Wishing you the best in your rebuild," Carol Mitchel Baynes of Deale added at 9:24 a.m., when firefighters were tamping down embers. "My daughter is hoping you will re-open by her birthday in June. It's a family tradition to celebrate in the Biergarten!"
"Your establishment is more than a local gem to my family. ... It has become the other roof under which we all gather," wrote Shane Sondergard of St. Mary's County in midafternoon — by which time a crowd of friends and neighbors were on the scene comforting the Selingers.
More than two dozen came out the next day to help them shovel out a foot of charred debris.
"A lot of days when you come here to work, you think you're just going to your job," says Beth Selinger, shivering a bit in the chill. "Believe me, we wish this had never happened. But it has been remarkable to learn what this place means to people. They come here to celebrate life."
At a loss
The business may be closed, but the Selingers have no time to rest.
They've been calling vendors to cancel orders. The phone rings around the clock. As they down the last of their tea, an official in a county car pulls in, chats gravely with the owners, then drives off.
The thought of rebuilding — inspections, permits, construction and more — daunts the Selingers.