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Compadres Rio Grille

Compadres Rio Grille.

Could a little bit of Las Vegas be coming to Napa?

A cardroom, offering games such as poker and blackjack, has been proposed as the next tenant of the space currently occupied by Compadres Rio Grille restaurant on Lincoln Avenue.

According to a use permit application filed on Aug. 17 with the city planning office, business owners Mike LeBlanc and Gabe Pattee would like to open the gaming business. It would be open 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week.

The restaurant would still occupy part of the building, but it’s unlikely to be a Compadres restaurant, according to the application.

“We are looking to create a high-quality dining/lounge/cardroom experience for both locals and visitors,” LeBlanc told the Register.

Their vision for the cardroom is as “a destination for locals to come have a bite to eat, drink a nice glass of wine and play a hand or two of poker.”

Pattee said the cardroom lease for 505 Lincoln Ave. has not been finalized but the two partners are “very confident” they will come to an agreement with landlord Assaad Barazi.

Rick Enos, the owner of Compadres, said he was aware of the cardroom application, but “it’s not a done deal,” he cautioned.

Even though he faces a significant rent increase, Enos said, “We are in lease negotiations for our current space” with Barazi.

“We have an active lease through Dec. 31, and in late June we informed our landlord of our desire to extend the lease at least another year,” said Enos.

Enos said his main concern is for his staff and workers at Compadres.

“We have enjoyed almost 32 years of being a part of, and serving, this community, and if our landlord chooses not to extend our lease, we will seek another space to relocate in wine country,” said Enos.

Barazi could not be immediately reached to comment on this story.

Upon hearing about the project, the first thing Napa Mayor Jill Techel said was, “I hope this isn’t the end of having Compadres in Napa.”

She’s not sure what to think about a cardroom as a possible tenant. “I didn’t have a cardroom on my list of things I wanted to have come to Napa while I was mayor,” she said.

However, “I’ve got to keep an open mind,” and be cautious about the proposed project, she added.

One detail already sticks out to Techel. A cardroom that remains open 24/7 “concerns me,” she said.

“That seems more Vegas-sy than Napa. I’m concerned that we don’t become Vegas-fied.”

Rick Tooker, the city’s community development director, said that the planning department just received the application and hasn’t fully analyzed it.

“It’s not your garden variety application,” Tooker said. “Because it’s unique it’s going to take some time to work through.”

Things the city will evaluate include parking, hours of operation, signage, security and how the cardroom tables are set up and used, he said.

The Planning Commission is the official review authority.

Five tables of card games

The application states that the gambling establishment would include up to 15 tables, with as many as five in use at any one time. The current restaurant space would be reduced to make room for the card tables.

LeBlanc said he chose Napa to open this cardroom because “people in Napa love to play cards, which they used to do at Hemphill’s Cardroom.”

“When I saw the opportunity to take over the Hemphill’s license, I was elated about the idea of bringing that fun back, albeit with a more modern approach that provides a higher-quality experience. It will give people in Napa something fun and different to do, other than just going out to dinner.”

LeBlanc said he’s always loved Napa. He’s an investor in a local wine company and has friends in the area. “When you see a chance to be a part of this exclusive community, you jump at it.”

The location is close to downtown “and there is a perfect setup for dining and lounging while looking out at the river.”

“We are speaking with locals about what they want” for a restaurant at that site, said LeBlanc.

“We’re willing to consider anything,” said Pattee.

The permit issued to the cardroom is in accordance with the municipal code, which allows just one such business in Napa.

LeBlanc and Pattee recently acquired the permit, which was issued many years ago to the former Hemphill’s Cardroom that used to be located on Old California Boulevard and the current site of Foodshed Take Away.

Proposed modifications include security and surveillance devices, restroom upgrades, low wall partitions delineating cardroom areas and a cage or vault for keeping and distributing chips and money.

The partners are working with local designer, Richard VonSaal, who has worked on projects for JAM cellars, Andaz Napa, and Bottlerock, said LeBlanc.

Hemphill’s back in the day

The late Dean Hemphill built the original cardroom, adding it to the existing Hemphill’s Cocktail Lounge on California Boulevard (in an area now called California Way) more than three decades ago because he loved to play cards, his daughter Julie Hemphill-Miller of Napa recalled.

Hemphill-Miller said she loved working at the bar and cardroom, which attracted mostly old-timers. “It was the greatest group of people ever,” she said.

Billy Long purchased Hemphill’s Cocktail and Cardroom in the late 1980s from Dean and Patricia Hemphill of Napa. At the time, Long owned American Canyon’s Napa Valley Casino. Hemphill’s was the city of Napa’s only cardroom at the time.

Unlike casinos, cardrooms are restricted by state rules to a limited number of card games. Unlike tribal casinos, there are no slot machines.

The state has a moratorium on new cardroom licenses. Statewide, California includes an estimated 82 licensed cardrooms. The closest other cardroom is located in American Canyon. It is called the Napa Valley Casino and is licensed to Brian Isaac Altizer, Von V. Altizer and BVK Gaming Inc.

The state decides which games can be played in cardrooms, such as poker and pai gow, according to the California Department of Justice website.

LeBlanc grew up in Danville and currently lives in Orange County. After high school he studied to become a firefighter but later joined forces with his mother, Patricia LeBlanc, in the gambling business.

“It has been an amazing job that has given me the opportunity to meet so many people and get involved with different communities throughout California,” said LeBlanc.

He’s partnered with several casinos over the past 20 years and currently owns two other licenses for California cardrooms in Fresno and Oceana.

In the past, the city approved cardrooms at California Boulevard and Trancas Street and on Jordan Lane behind Walmart, said LeBlanc.

“We think this is a much better place for a cardroom as it provides more parking and is still insulated from residential neighborhoods.”

The property is relatively large for a restaurant, has a lot of parking and the building is set back far from Lincoln Avenue, he noted.

“However, the challenging aspect is that the lease price reflects the significant size of the property and building. Restaurants have struggled to operate here, which is a shame because of the Napa River view. However, we think the restaurant/lounge/cardroom combination will allow the business and property to thrive.”

Many Napa ventures fail because they only cater to tourists, LeBlanc noted. “We feel that we cannot operate without a steady stream of local patrons, so it is critical that the venue is welcoming to Napans.”

“I mean, how cool will it be to be able to play a hand of blackjack, then move to the deck overlooking the Napa River for a great meal and a drink?”

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.