The outdoor kitchen is becoming an ever-more popular item in the backyard. And it is changing, becoming more complicated.

“I think the traditional counter is not very functional at all,” says Scott Cohen, president of The Green Scene Design & Construction in Canoga Park, Calif. “It’s typically just a rectangle with a grill in it, and you’ve got your back to your guests. I almost think it’s rude.”

Just as the indoor kitchen is a guest magnet during parties, so is the outdoor grill island. That means the cook needs it to accomplish more. Not only should the space enable more sophisticated cooking, with burners and even Teppan tables (a la Benihana), but a good grill island should help entertain guests.

Now let’s see how builders configure and design outdoor counter tops to accomplish all of these things.

Getting situated

When working on counter top design, you may need to have a heart-to-heart conversation with the client.

Many people have a mental picture of how they’ll use the grill: They’ll stand behind it the whole time, talking with their friends and taking in a gorgeous view of the backyard.

“They’ll say, ‘I want it situated right here in the middle, so I can flip burgers and have a view of the pool and be visiting with people,’” says Jeff Thiessen, president of Thiessen’s Custom Masonry in Franklin, Tenn.

But, in reality, they don’t need to constantly stare at the sizzling steaks and burgers. They’ll just check on the meat every few minutes. Meanwhile, they’ll want to take a step or two away, and their friends probably won’t want to be close to the smoke or heat. So suggest a layout that has them behind a bar with the barbecue off to the side, concealed from view.

Your client also may ask to place the island at the back of the yard, so he or she can look toward the home and enjoy the whole view. Again, they don’t quite understand how they’ll use the island, Cohen says. They’ll usually need to run back and forth between the house and the grill. In some cases, friends and family will stay inside, watching a game or enjoying the air conditioning — and the griller will want to occasionally visit.

That’s why Cohen always convinces his customers to place the counter or island within 30 feet of the house.

These homeowners do have one part of the equation right: Wherever you put the counters, situate them so the person behind them can look into the yard.

General shape

Counter top configurations are endless, but each of them must achieve certain objectives: Accommodate the homeowner, along with the grill, sink, refrigerator or whatever other equipment is needed to cook and entertain; provide space for a few friends to visit; and act as a service area for plates and glasses. It would be nice to hide the barbecue from obvious view because it can get dirty over time. The cook/bartender should be able to easily toggle back and forth between cooking and socializing.

Some common configurations can accomplish all of this. Cohen and Thiessen try to stay away from the strictly straight counter top. At the very least, they’ll configure the island in an L shape.

“That gives your buddies a place to hang out, and it works much better for serving,” Cohen explains.

The short leg can accommodate the grill so it can be set off to the side. The longer side will be the bar, where guests can congregate to keep the cook company. The person behind the counter can then duck off to the side to check on the steaks or burgers, then leave the smoke behind and rejoin the guests.

Thiessen’s favorite configuration is the U because it provides two roomy counter tops, then a smaller one at the base of the U. “It keeps your serving counter completely clear of the barbecue grill,” he says. The back counter becomes the functional island, where all of the work is done; the front counter is used for serving.

This makes even more sense if your client plans to have buffets or use the space for catered affairs. When using the U-shaped floor plan, remember that it takes up more space — at least 10-by-15 feet, Thiessen says.

You can use any combination of counter- and bar height surfaces. Generally, counters stand somewhere between 34- and 37 inches, with 36 inches being the standard. Bars range from 42- to 47 inches, with most falling between 44- and 46 inches. You can work on the low end of those ranges for shorter clients and higher end for taller, Cohen says. But he tries to remain within the conventional ranges so the island is usable by future homeowners.

Counter heights usually make the most sense for accommodating grills, sinks and whatever else might be included for cooking. Bar height is good for the serving area. Not only is it more comfortable for guests, but if placed correctly, it can help camouflage the less attractive features.

Split-level counter tops provide a utilitarian, yet high-end, touch. With this setup, the counters are shorter at the interior of the island and at bar height outside. This can be achieved by raising the floor inside the island, where the cook/bartender works, or by building the counters at different heights.

The first option makes it easier to form and pour the counter itself. More importantly, it provides more continuous counter space. However, it also puts the griller at a higher elevation than visitors. The second option, where the counter itself is truly at two levels, keeps everyone on an even keel and clearly distinguishes the counter surfaces between cooking/preparation (lower) and serving (upper). It also has a more finished, multidimensional look, Thiessen says. Plus, the elevation change allows you to dress up the cooking area with backsplashes behind the sink and grill.

Finishing touches

When choosing a material to finish the counter top, you need something that is beautiful, smooth and comfortable to the touch, easy to clean, and stain-resistant.

Ceramic tile is probably the simplest way to meet these requirements. Stone and concrete also will work as long as you use a good sealer. Look for one that is stain-resistant, food-safe and provides UV protection. Your client should know ahead of time that the counter top will need periodic resealing, based on the manufacturer’s instructions. Many of these sealers need to be reapplied once a year, Thiessen says.

If you’re using concrete as the finishing surface, you’ll need to vibrate it to remove bubbles and voids.

“There are lots of oils in barbecuing, plus wines,” Cohen says. “Vibrating it in really helps reduce the porosity of the counter, and it actually becomes waterproof so that we don’t get water down below the counters.”

His favorite surfaces combine concrete with aggregate, crushed glass and even seashells and fossils. After hand-seeding these embellishments, Cohen’s crew will grind and polish the surface so it’s almost as smooth as glass.

As a ceramics enthusiast, Cohen has even melted down wine and scotch bottles and put them in the concrete. Not only does this add interest, he says, but the bottles make for a perfect cutting surface.

The edgings around a counter can vary from rudimentary to refined. A squared edge is more traditional and requires little to no effort. If it’s strictly a concrete counter top, just let it be. Otherwise, wrap the veneering material around the edge.

To give counters a sophisticated look, you can add a decorative edging, using forms and concrete. Bullnoses also are common and more comfortable to lean on. Fancier mantle and ogi borders are not only more intricate, but make the corners look more crisp.