Outdoor Kitchen Designs That Bring Indoor Comforts Out

by Steve & Cathy Lambert

What’s cooking in your backyard? Today we pick up tips for designing outdoor kitchens, from our Garden and Landscape Design Experts and Contributors Steve and Cathy Lambert. Steve and Cathy share with us great advice for creating beautiful gardens and outdoor living spaces.

Many homeowners view their yards as extensions of their homes, creating separate spaces and rooms for specific purposes. Outdoor living has evolved way beyond the picnic tables, folding chairs, and hibachis of our parents’ backyards to a much more comfort-and-pleasure-focused standard. This landscaping trend is all about bringing indoor comforts to the outdoors.

Kitchen with both gas and charcoal grills

Today’s consumers have a vast and rapidly growing selection of products to make outdoor living one of the most pleasurable aspects of owning a home. Backyard kitchens sometimes become more elaborate than indoor ones with:

  • Large built-in barbecues (many including rotisseries and side burners)
  • Wine coolers
  • Refrigerators
  • Pizza ovens
  • Food and cocktail prep areas.

Bar seating that looks out at best view

The most important step in building a good-looking, functional and long-lasting outdoor kitchen is design. You must consider many of the same factors that you would for a new indoor kitchen.

simple outdoor kitchen with recycled timber arbor

First, make a list of all the features you want. Be willing to trim the list back a bit for budget and space limitations. Next, look for the most appropriate location based on convenience, site surroundings and climate conditions. These factors will also influence the selection of products and materials used in your backyard cooking and dinning space. Knowledge of the safety and durability of these products and materials when used outdoors is key in saving you replacement costs.

Outdoor kitchen with 48 inch grill

Looking down on outdoor kitchen

For convenience and efficiency the best place for your outdoor kitchen is often just outside your indoor one. Here you’ll have quick and easy access to food, equipment and tableware. By choosing a location with an emphasis on efficiency you’ll use and enjoy your open-air kitchen more often whether you’re entertaining a crowd or having a relaxing
family meal.

Sometimes a view, focal point (such as a pool or water feature), or simply the lay of the land will clearly dictate placement of your outdoor kitchen farther from your house. In this situation you’ll benefit from the expertise of a landscape designer to ensure that climate and space related issues are used to your advantage. For example:

  • Does the space need to be covered with an arbor for shade?
  • Do trees need to added or removed?
  • Is there good traffic flow between the indoor and outdoor kitchen?
  • Is your dinning space positioned to enjoy your best view?
  • How does the placement of your outdoor room impact the views from inside
    your home?

Simple out door kit. at bar height

The terrain of your yard is also a major factor in deciding the layout of your cooking and entertaining spaces. If you have a hillside it may require the installation of a retaining wall. Your built-in barbecue, bench, or fireplace can double as a retaining wall when backed into a hillside.

Simple outdoor kitchen with rough granite top

It’s also important to consider the degree of privacy you want. Your landscaping can create and define the “walls” of your space to help achieve the secluded feeling of a room.

Outdoor kitchen with grill and outdoor fireplace

As the outdoor living trend grows, the market is keeping up with the demand by offering more and more products designed and built to live outside. There are many more appliances available these days that are UL-rated for outdoor use. The influx of all these appliances greatly expands the options for cooking, dining and entertaining “al fresco.”

When choosing your outdoor appliances think about frequency of use versus the additional impact to your energy bill. An ice maker is great to have during a party, but will you use it very often otherwise? The same can be said for beer taps and refrigerators. As an alternative, we’ve added many ‘cooler cubbies’ or built-in coolers to barbecue islands. These coolers are out of view but very convenient for use during large gatherings and their biggest bonus – they use no electricity.

The best outside floor and counter surface options are the natural ones, such as granite or stone. Natural products will better withstand the wear and tear of outdoor exposure. These are generally best chosen in lighter colors so as not to absorb too much heat. Concrete and stainless are also good choices and certain tiles can be more durable than stone, particularly when used for flooring.

Traeger pellet grill and gas grill

Factors such as heat, sound and light are often overlooked when planning outdoor spaces, yet these elements are essential to their overall use and enjoyment. Think about how these systems will be powered. There are two basic options here depending on location: If your backyard kitchen is close to your house it can be powered through a common or nearby wall. A more remote location will require installing separate electrical and/or gas lines.

If you live where the temperature drops in the evening there are many options for adding a heat source to your exterior rooms. We’ve installed propane and natural gas heaters, mounted in eaves and arbors as well as the free standing models. Fireplaces and fire-pits, although not as efficient as a gas heater in warming up a large space, are a more popular choice since they provide both warmth and atmosphere. If you’re looking for the best of both warmth and ambiance, a combination of a fireplace or fire-pit and space heater is the way to go.

Because heat naturally rises and is uncontained outdoors, to aide in holding the heat where you want it, use an outside ceiling fan. The same fan used to cool your entertainment space during the day, can force the heat of fireplaces or gas heaters to circulate downward when set on low at night.

Outdoor kitchen with tropical fan

Sound systems will greatly enhance the social aspect of your outdoor space and can either be wired into your house stereo system, or wired to act independently. Finally, good lighting is critical to the success of your backyard kitchen and entertainment space. Just as with the indoor kitchen, there must be ample amounts of both ambient and task lighting. Often, the ambient (mood) lighting is remembered, but the task lighting is not. It can be difficult to perfect your cooking if your cook can’t see the food. Good task lighting can easily be achieved by placing small, directional spot lights in overhead eaves, structures or trees.

Outdoor kitchen with soapstone counter

With so many choices in features, design and products, installing an outdoor kitchen can be almost as overwhelming as remodeling your indoor one. On the plus side – you won’t have to box up your kitchen or worry about all the dust it will create when adding a kitchen to your yard. Imagine all the extra living space you and your family will enjoy when you begin bringing the comforts of inside – out.


Cathy and Steve LambertSteve and Cathy Lambert have created distinctively dramatic, custom gardens since 1989, through their award-winning Garden Lights Landscape & Pool Development in Orinda, CA. They share with us their advice and expertise on all areas of garden and landscape.

Landscape Designer/Contractor and Master Gardener Steve envisions and creates romantic, welcoming and functional outdoor living spaces. His writer-wife Cathy wordsmiths Steve’s technical advice into something easy to understand and fun to read for the everyday DIY gardener. Together they also write the “Way to Grow” column for The Orinda News.


What’s on the menu tonight in your backyard?

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