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Cuisine People

May 27, 2022

Plates of food at Arthur's Restaurant

For 50 years, Arthur’s Restaurant & Wine Shop has been a Charlotte mainstay for wine connoisseurs — and shoppers recharging with a quick bite.

by Kathleen Purvis  |  photographs by Michael Hrizuk

In 1973, when two young men announced a plan to move their small wine and food shop into the basement of an uptown department store, it was front-page news in The Charlotte Observer

The young men were brothers Robert and John Balsley, the shop was Arthur’s, and the department store was Ivey’s — the Tryon Street stalwart owned by a family that was so Methodist, they didn’t allow wine glasses or card tables to be sold in the housewares department. Ivey’s didn’t even allow the color burgundy to be named in its advertisements because it took its name from a wine. 

A shop in the basement that would sell beer and wine? Now, that was news. And not everyone thought it was good news: Mrs. George Ivey herself, the mother of store president George Ivey Jr. and the daughter-in-law of founder J.B. Ivey, didn’t mince words with the newspaper. 

“Well, you just know (J.B. Ivey) is out there plowing up his end of the cemetery over this,” she declared. “And I’d be doing the same if I were out there.”

George Jr. knew what he was doing with the Balsley brothers, though. The little wine and food shop they bought in 1972 marks its 50th anniversary this year, and it’s become a Charlotte stalwart itself, bouncing around from uptown to SouthPark, from Ivey’s to Belk, and selling the wine that fills every serious wine cellar in town. 

Two men stand in front of displays of wine, looking at a menu
Robert and John Balsley

But the Balsleys definitely had a rocky start in Charlotte. Robert, John, their younger brother Steve and their sister Jacquelyn were all from Philadelphia, where their father worked in factories. In 1969, when their father took a job at Westinghouse in Charlotte, they came down to see the new place their parents had settled. Robert, just 22 and fresh out of the military, wasn’t impressed. 

“I hated it,” he declares now. “Not a single thing here you could eat.” He was a Philly boy — he wanted cheesesteaks and good pizza. 

But Robert and his younger brother John both wanted to be entrepreneurs, and Robert had taken a correspondence course on wine while he was in the Army — even though the only wine he knew was Boone’s Farm. He reluctantly came to Charlotte, though, and took a job at a cheese shop in Eastland Mall. That’s when he and John started looking at a little spot, Arthur’s Gourmet Shop, in the lobby of the old Clayton Hotel at Church and West Fifth streets. 

The shop owner, Arthur Pressman, had decided to retire. The area had gotten a little seedy — The Observer noted that Pressman’s customers were mostly “winos who drank in the graveyard across the street and a few connoisseurs of international wines.” 

Robert and John approached him and offered to buy the shop, inventory and all, for $6,000. Pressman agreed, and even let them keep his name. They knew so little about wine, they couldn’t even pronounce the names on the French bottles. 

“Young and stupid,” John recalls. 

“We broke every law,” Robert adds. 

A person holds a bottle of Napa Valley Quilt cabernet in front of a collection of assorted wines

They spent $300 on tables and chairs from an unfinished furniture shop, and added a few sandwiches to the menu. At the time, most restaurants in uptown were small diners owned by Greek immigrants. 

“They hated us,” John says. Louis Politis, son of Greek restaurateur Pete Politis, would be sent on spying expeditions, to see how many customers they had. 

“The pie was finite. Charlotte was a small town still.” 

In 1973, they found out their building was being torn down. Luckily, they had one big fan: George Ivey Jr. He co-signed their first business loan, and he thought a wine and food shop in his downtown department store was just the thing. While women shopped, their husbands could go downstairs and get lunch and a glass of wine or a beer while they waited. 

“Without him,” John says, “we wouldn’t be here today,” Robert finishes. 

As Ivey’s expanded to SouthPark and Eastland, Arthur’s Restaurant & Wine Shop went along, eventually opening seven locations in the Carolinas, including one in Overstreet Mall. They also opened East Boulevard Bar & Grill, modeled after the legendary Clyde’s in Washington, D.C. After they sold it, it became the White Horse Restaurant and then 300 East.

When Ivey’s was bought by Dillard’s in 1990, they moved across SouthPark to the lower floor of Belk. Tom Belk had always told them, “If you’re ever unhappy at Ivey’s …” 

Hamburger with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, bacon, and ketchup on top of a blue and white checkered paper with a side of ketchup covered fries.

Along the way, Robert, John and their siblings, Steve and Jacquelyn, all learned the wine and restaurant businesses. And Robert became the city’s personal wine steward. Whatever his well-heeled customers bought, they would share with him.

“The more they ordered, the more I learned,” he says. 

Robert started teaching classes and supporting the growth of a wine world in Charlotte. He helped start three of Charlotte’s five crus, or wine clubs, and was a longtime board member for the Charlotte Wine & Food Festival. And they started taking customers on wine excursions, from Napa to Burgundy — the place, not the color — and beyond. 

“Geography is my business,” Robert says. “I make sure they walk out of here learning something.”

Angie Packer, co-owner and executive vice president of Tryon Distributing, met Robert when she came to Charlotte in 1986, as one of the few women in the wine business here in those days. Until Arthur’s, “your choices were white, red and pink,” Packer says. The Balsleys changed the wine landscape in Charlotte. 

“He was kind of the only game in town that wasn’t a chain store,” she says. She remembers the reaction when winery representatives would come to town and she would tell them she was taking them to an important wine store — at SouthPark. 

“‘The mall? One of the best wine shops in North Carolina is in a mall?’” was a typical reaction.

On a recent Monday morning in the basement of Belk SouthPark, the action is in the back of Arthur’s, around a high table that’s usually used for wine classes. A half-dozen men, all representatives for different distributors, are wolfing down sandwiches from the Arthur’s café next door while they go over orders on their laptops. Robert, now 75, moves around the table constantly, checking what they have, what they’re charging — and what he wants to pay. 

On Mondays, he says, “I hold court. They’re all trying to get my knickers.” 

The Balsleys aren’t planning any special celebration to mark their 50th anniversary. They had a party once, for their 10th anniversary. They rolled back prices and had 300 or 400 people there. 

Afterward, Robert and John agreed: “This is stupid. Everybody else had a good time but us.”

Anyway, both Robert and John say Arthur’s isn’t going anywhere. John’s son now works for the family business as well.

“I’m still having fun,” Robert says. “I still get to travel. I still get to drink great wine.”  SP

Four men stand in the middle of Arthur's Wine Shop in Charlotte, NC surrounded by cases and stacks of wine
Brothers Steve, Robert and John Balsley, with John’s son, Robert, second from right.

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