For years, it was enough to park a barbecue grill next to a picnic table on a patio and call it an "outdoor kitchen." But over the past decade, Americans have taken backyard cooking and dining to a new level, adding elaborate cooking islands, outdoor sinks and refrigerators, even outdoor TVs.
Unless you have a really tall fence, this is the one "room" in your house that neighbors will see whether you invite them to or not, notes designer Sarah Fishburne, director of trend and design for The Home Depot. That inspires many homeowners to pay extra attention to their outdoor entertaining area.
Many of us also love the appeal of cooking and entertaining in a space that's relatively indestructible, says designer Jeff Blunkosky, owner of Pittsburgh Stone and Waterscapes.
"If kids spill cake or Kool-Aid on your patio," he says, "you just pull out your hose and hose it off."
Here are some thoughts from Flynn, Blunkosky and Los Angeles-based designer Brian Patrick Flynn, creator of the design blog FlynnsideOut.com, about the elements that make a useful, beautiful outdoor kitchen without huge expense:
Build an island
About a decade ago, Blunkosky says, many homeowners began feeling that "a stand-alone grill just kind of standing there" didn't look that great in their backyards. Plus, it provided little workspace for prepping food. The answer was to build around it, incorporating the grill into a stone base with a countertop and drawers underneath - pretty and practical.
Costs vary around the country, but these designers say an investment of $3,000 to $5,000 will cover a simple, 6-foot-long cooking island with a basic grill embedded in it and a 2-foot-deep countertop area. The countertop serves as cooking prep space, and usually extends out so that bar stools can be pulled up underneath to create a bar area for guests.
To turn a cooking island into a full-service kitchen, add a refrigerator, sink and ice maker, plus more storage drawers. That involves running a water line and power line out to the structure, so costs rise. So does the time the project takes, says Blunkosky: Designing and installing an elaborate cooking island surrounded by paving stones can take as long as putting an addition on your house.
Bring the heat
As people spend more on their outdoor kitchens, they want to use them for as much of the year as possible - no matter where they live.
Fireplaces, fire pits and heaters, either freestanding or wall-mounted, are good ways to extend the season for your outdoor kitchen. Outdoor pizza ovens also have become popular.
And grills have come a long way since the days when we poured lighter fluid on a pile of coals.
Fishburne says the new generation of outdoor cooks wants more than steaks, hamburgers and hot dogs. "They're thinking about Korean barbecue," she says, or asking, "How can I make breakfast outside?"
The new "Spirit Grill" from Weber has "seven interchangeable grates," she says, including a pizza stone, pancake maker and poultry rotisserie attachment. Some buyers use it to make three meals a day outside, she says. Prices begin between $299 and $399, but many of the attachments are sold separately.
Grill quality is important, Blunkosky says, especially in areas with harsh weather. But if you're trying to be strategic with money, Flynn points out that even a nice grill and other outdoor appliances might need to be replaced within five years. He recommends investing more in the permanent things (a higher-end cooking island or paving stones) rather than a hugely expensive grill.
Frame the space
Outdoor draperies can add privacy, inject color and pattern, and set off your dining area as a distinct space, Flynn says. They also can make a small patio feel larger, he says: If you hang curtains that are 7 or 8 feet tall, "you will emphasize the height of the space rather than emphasizing how small the footprint is."
Pergolas achieve the same effect, and used together the two elements can create a dining area that feels luxurious, at minimal expense. A pergola also gives you more options for built-in lighting. A chandelier or hanging pendant light over the dining table can make your outdoor space feel like a true dining room, and there are many designed for outdoor use. Outdoor sconces can be hung on the pergola's posts.
Consider which splurges would serve you best: extra electrical outlets? An outdoor icemaker or small refrigerator? Maybe an outdoor TV?
As for tables and chairs, Fishburne says there are many options. Some clients, she says, invest in high-end brands with a reputation for lasting a decade or more. Brown Jordan, for instance, offers a 15-year warranty on the frames of their furniture, and Fishburne has "heard stories about people who have had Brown Jordan in their families for generations."
If you have a relatively small outdoor space, Flynn suggests looking for modular furniture pieces. Some outdoor sofas, he says, can be easily broken down into smaller sections that can be used as table seating.
He also suggests adding a mobile bar cart to serve as a cocktail station or as a spot for serving dishes. It brings a bit of indoor style, and can easily be brought inside during bad weather.