Sarah and Bill Niles met in the culinary hotbed of San Francisco, working in the hip restaurants while building their resumes. But when James joined the family in 2016, the couple started thinking seriously about their next step.
“We always wanted to own our own restaurant,” says Sarah Niles, the co-owner, general manager and wine director of Range Life. “We knew we weren’t going to be able to do that in San Francisco.”
So, with the goal of staying in the Bay Area, Sarah and Bill began casting about for a likely landing spot, and it didn’t take long for Livermore to jump on the radar screen. After all, the first grapes were planted there in the 1840s, the first wineries opened in the 1880s, and a century later the Livermore Valley American Viticultural Area was formed. (A viticultural area is a region with grapes that share specific characteristics, and belonging to one helps wineries develop customer awareness and brand loyalty.)
“The wineries made it make sense to move here,” says Niles. “People here are passionate about food and wine.”
So after locating a historic building just a couple blocks from the downtown district, Sarah and Bill opened Range Life in April 2018 – and it was an immediate hit. “The community support has been incredible,” she says.
And, as word has spread, more and more visitors from outside the Tri-Valley area (as Livermore, Pleasanton and Danville are collectively known) have found their way to Range Life. On weekends, an afternoon checking out the terroir at some of the 50 local wineries can be capped with a taste of the terroir at Range Life. Bill Niles, who runs the kitchen, favors seasonal fare, and with easy access to the rich farmland of the Central Valley just over the Altamont Pass, the menu features the best of what’s available right now.
Even so, Sarah Niles still has trouble describing exactly what the vibe is at the restaurant, which was named one of the Bay Area’s best by the San Francisco Chronicle.
“It’s hard to define,” she says. “It’s a bit elevated in cuisine, attention to detail and service, but we want it to be really accessible. Bill and I are pretty laid back – well, as laid-back as you can be in this business.”
And given the unique demographics of Livermore, an eclectic, informal style is pretty much a necessity. On the one hand, Livermore is home to the Livermore National Laboratory, chock full of elite scientists working on everything from nuclear fusion to advanced weaponry. And along with the Lab, as it’s known, are businesses that offer high-tech support and other research facilities, such as Sandia National Laboratories.
But then there are the wineries and ranches that extend into the rolling hills that separate Livermore from the Central Valley, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say there’s a definite cowboy feel to the city of 90,000.
“We get everybody,” says Sarah, “people from the Lab and people who live way back in the hills.”
And they all come for the farm-to-table food, craft cocktails and for specials such as fried chicken Mondays.
Of course, the pandemic was a struggle, as Range Life did not have a patio already in place. “It’s going to take some time to build back to where we before,” says Sarah, but business is steadily picking up, and they’re opening for more and more hours.
And Range Life is also part of a burgeoning Livermore food scene. Amy Wingen, who started out as the sous chef at Range Life, will soon open Wingen Bakery, and Story Coffee Co. has developed a devoted downtown following.
“There will be an explosion in dining,” says Sarah of Livermore’s future. “There will be more restaurants like us.”
Even if she isn’t quite sure exactly what kind of restaurant Range Life really is.
You can follow Clay Kallam’s food adventures at #dishdining on Instagram.