Escape to RT Lodge
Words by Jennifer Kornegay
Near the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the grounds of Maryville College, in Maryville, Tennessee, RT Lodge is a gem that’s almost hidden in thick woods. But it can’t be fully obscured. Its welcome shines too brightly, and the pull of its relaxed vibe is too powerful.
Both its hospitality and serenity are well established. The property began as a private residence. In the early 1930s, recently widowed Susan Wiley Cooper Riley left her home in Pennsylvania to be near her sister, who lived on the campus of Maryville College with her college chaplain husband. Susan was struck with love at first sight, feeling an instant connection to the large tract of forested land that ringed the small campus. She persuaded the college to let her build a house amid the trees. The college agreed with the provision that the house would be left to the college in her will, and she constructed a twenty-six-room classical revival style home she called Morningside. She also planted and meticulously maintained small natural garden areas and paths traversing those trees. And she kept her word; when she died in 1950, the house became college property and served as a president’s residence for years.
Then, it was a restaurant and special event space. In 1989, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1997, Ruby Tuesday Inc. (RTI), the company that owns the national Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain, leased the property to use it for corporate retreats and training, restoring and renovating the main house, building two additional structures as it needed additional overnight accommodations, and giving the property the RT Lodge name. The company also opened the Lodge and onsite restaurant to the public.
In spring 2021, a group of local investors bought the Lodge from RTI, and new developments are currently underway, all driven by the goal of preserving the Lodge’s charm and character, while also enhancing and expanding its offerings. So far, it’s working.
Today, the main lodge (the original home) and the two newer buildings containing guest rooms, dubbed Wiley House and Walker House, still sit blanketed in the deep shade that enamored Susan almost a century ago. The property sits not far off a main road, but the quiet is broken only by birdsong. From the expansive back patio that flows from a fabulous new bar to the handful of rocking chairs facing a semi-secret, open-air fireplace snuggled next to a gurgling waterfall, a vibe of rest and retreat permeates the property.
The decor throughout is traditional mountain-luxe: dark wood, leather, stone, and a color palette pulled from nature. Gathering areas inside and out beckon with ample comfy seating, most set up to encourage conversation. Rooms are outfitted with sumptuous linens and custom-made furnishings that also adhere to a rustic lodge-style aesthetic.
The original name Morningside remains relevant. Each new day at RT Lodge unfolds at an unhurried pace with multiple options to fill the coming hours. Sink into a good book in one of the common areas, or if you scored one of the rooms with a porch or balcony, hang there. Snag a bike and explore the miles of trails in Maryville Woods, or do the same on foot. Hit up some shops in the small town downtown; Dandy Lions Gifts and Roost are can’t-miss stops. Or make the twenty-five-minute drive into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to discover or remind yourself why it’s our country’s most visited. Whatever you choose to do, don’t skip the eating opportunities at RT Lodge, overseen by executive chef Trevor Stockton.
That means starting fresh with the full breakfast that’s included in your room rate. Fluffy scrambled eggs, bacon, crunchy housemade granola and yogurt, just-baked muffins and breads with pots of housemade jams (when in season, made from blackberries picked just down the road) to smear on them, are served in the sun-drenched dining room upstairs in the Lodge. In the afternoon, the patio’s fire pit is roaring and fixins for s’mores are set out. With its gold-striped-wallpaper ceiling and polished mint-green walls, the bar is waiting to deliver whimsical versions of old standards as well as unique cocktails such as the Stinging Bee’s Knees (gin, fermented honey, ginger, lemon) and the Hi-Tea (vodka, hibiscus tea, ginger).
The Lodge’s focus on food and drink is evident and smart with a talent such as Stockton in the kitchen. There’s been a restaurant at the Lodge in some form or another for years, and he’s served in various roles since 2010. But since taking over as head chef in 2013, he’s continued to up the ante.
People are enjoying his efforts; the restaurant routinely stays booked—especially on weekends—and not just with Lodge guests but with locals and even folks from surrounding areas. Diners are drawn to Stockton’s unfussy yet refined approach to food that’s built on a foundation of family and farmers. “My dad is a chef, and I spent time in the kitchen with him as a kid. I knew what good food was,” Stockton says. “But I had to find my own identity, and the connection to the locally grown fruits and vegetables here influenced me in figuring that out.”
He recalls his initial bite of stellar produce. “Growing up in Michigan, I never really had great tomatoes,” he says. “I remember tasting some of these ingredients for the first time here, like the blackberries. The lady I get them from picks them and brings them, and sometimes, they’re still warm from the sun.” The chef who hired him at the Lodge became a trusted mentor who taught Stockton how to cook with the seasons. “That’s how I look at our menu. What do we have to serve right now? What’s growing and being harvested? Cooking with product that just came in the door, deciding how to use it best—that’s fun and keeps me excited about our food.”
Stockton’s enthusiasm is obvious in a charcuterie board laden with meats he’s cured and smoked himself, veggies he’s pickled, plus complimentary cheeses; greens dressed in preserved mint vinaigrette, tossed with sweet peaches and plump blackberries and dotted with dollops of tangy goat cheese; and slices of hanger steak stacked atop a relish of barley-blistered sweet corn and zucchini. “We put such emphasis on getting the best ingredients we can, so the goal is to highlight them.” That means focusing on technique and seasoning, but never letting things get complicated. “Our food is really quite simple; it’s never pretentious. It’s the way I like to eat.” Others like it too. “To have folks coming from California to get married here and say one of the main reasons was for the food, that’s pretty neat to hear,” Stockton says.
Add the tranquil ambiance provided by the Lodge’s other elements to the surrounding scenic splendor, and you’ve got a spot sure to satisfy your appetite for an escape.