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High-end outdoor living spaces are a huge trend—like this one on Longboat Key.

Forget the lonely laminate counter with a charcoal grill and a beer fridge on the back deck. Today’s best outdoor kitchens are as design-forward as the homes themselves. They feature the latest tile and stone treatments. And they’re incorporated seamlessly into increasingly larger outdoor spaces that allow homeowners to enjoy Florida’s moderate climate (eight months of the year, anyway).

It’s a trend worth noting, says high-end custom home builder Steve Murray of Murray Homes. His clients are clamoring for less air-conditioned square footage—they’re ditching the formal living room and dining room, for example—and instead want bigger outdoor rooms. The total square footage of the home doesn’t change, however, and neither does the budget. “People aren’t spending less,” says Murray. “They’re spending it outside.”

Demand is great for full-fledged exterior kitchens, he says—not just a grill, but stovetops, sinks, refrigerators, ice machines; “a full entertaining space, as opposed to ‘Where do I put the Big Green Egg’?”

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An outdoor kitchen designed by Murray Homes.

Last year Murray completed a new bayside residence on north Longboat Key, designed by architect John Potvin for a couple who love to entertain. The house has about 4,500 square feet of air-conditioned square footage and 2,500 square feet of outdoor rooms.

Because its orientation is northwest to optimize views of the Ringling Museum’s stately Ca d’ Zan mansion (think occasional brisk north winds), retractable exterior sliders were installed at the outer edge of the outdoor dining area and on the windows above the sink. They open and close mechanically. “You’re not going to get wet, you’re not going to get windy and cold,” says Murray. “They can eat there every day of the year.” On the rare inclement winter day, they can warm the space with gas heaters installed in the ceiling.

Everything in the outdoor kitchen was designed for ease of use, and all the products are salt- and sun-tolerant and maintenance-free. The ceiling is pecky cypress, the floor is limestone tiles, and the backsplash is stacked stone.

“For six months, where we live, we can open all the doors and windows and enjoy a house that really flows,” says Murray. “Why tuck yourself inside behind windows, when we can put you in an outside environment and control the elements?”

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An outdoor kitchen by Ross Capel Davies of Ross Davies Inc.

Image: Gene Pollux

This handsome stacked-stone outdoor kitchen in Laurel Oak is a redo of a dated, shoddily constructed one the homeowners inherited when they bought the home last year. Ross Capel Davies of Ross Davies, Inc. gutted it and started over, taking advantage of two existing columns by running the 12-foot stretch of kitchen cabinetry and appliances between them. That created better circulation, as the kitchen is not tucked into an alcove. “You can walk right around it,” Davies says.

On the side facing the pool, he installed an outdoor-rated stainless steel refrigerator and lots of stainless steel-drawered cabinets. And he chose stacked stone for the finish in tones of gray and golden brown to pick up the colors of the floor pavers, and an absolute black granite countertop.

He also created a stacked-stone privacy wall around an existing outdoor shower, creating “a completely private grotto area.”

The homeowners installed a big-screen TV as a crowning touch. The result is a space that’s a lot more social and can accommodate a huge crowd for a party. “They love it; they’re out there all the time,” says Davies. “It’s built around enjoying life.”

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An outdoor living space at The Concession.

Image: Courtesy Photo 

At The Victoria model at The Concession, John Cannon Homes created 3,545 square feet of outdoor living space (bigger than many entire houses) with an outdoor kitchen, dining area and two spacious seating areas around an enormous pool and spa—all under floor-to-ceiling “view cage” screening that doesn’t have bars to impede the view.

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The Victoria model at The Concession.

“Outdoor kitchens are all about entertaining,” says Cannon. “The idea is to make them not just functional but aesthetically pleasing and comfortable spaces to enjoy.”

Think of outdoor spaces as rooms without walls, he says. In this outdoor kitchen, Cannon chose rough-cut limestone flooring, a cypress ceiling that soars to 14 feet and a cypress-clad island.

 “There’s everything there. You have just as much money in the flooring, the tile accents, the light fixtures as you do in the house,” he says. “Outdoor furniture now is just as attractive as your living room sofa. They’re an extension of the home.”

Design It Right

Use stainless steel appliances, cypress wood accents, fans and light fixtures all designed and rated for exterior use. Powder-coated metal cabinets are also becoming popular.

Consider building a roof to shield your kitchen—and your parties—from the elements, and install outdoor ceiling fans.

Make sure the space is large enough. “If you make a room one foot too small, it can make the whole space unusable,” John Cannon says.

Take the time to look at furniture placement to analyze circulation patterns.

Avoid using wood in direct contact with gas grills, advises Ross Capel-Davies. “Wood can’t withstand the intense heat,” he says.

As in any kitchen, an efficient flow from the refrigerator to the counters to the cooking area is essential.

Plan for storage of food and drinks.

Luxury gas grills are getting less expensive, so go for one with bells and whistles—a rotisserie, wood-smoking ability, even charcoal options.

Consider a wood-fired pizza oven. Freestanding models are available for under $1,000, though you could spend as much as $12,000 for a built-in pizza oven. Smokers and beer taps are also fun options.

Don’t forget lighting, both functional and artistic (like under-counter lights).

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