1. Kick it up a notch. The basic charcoal grill where you'd occasionally burn a few hot dogs is passé. Outdoor cooking options have grown up. Today's lanai or patio can hold a complete kitchen stocked with everything you need to whip up a gourmet meal. You need equipment for cooking, chilling food and drinks, and cleaning up. Combining practicality with all the newest options will make your outdoor kitchen beautifully livable. How elaborate it all becomes depends on your space and budget.
2. Weatherproof everything. Choose a spot that offers protection from the elements. You'll want an area under a roof for shade and to shelter kitchen equipment. Storms are a fact of life in Florida, so make plans to protect equipment, whether it's removing the chef's TV or covering grills and furnishings in case of a tropical storm.
As for materials, concrete block, stainless steel and porcelain are three good choices. Mike Burdelik of Custom Outdoor Kitchen Concepts says they use "only reinforced concrete and no wood, so it stands up to the weather. Even if it's treated wood, it will eventually warp or crack."
The newest dining furniture is made of synthetic materials that mostly withstand heat and humidity. To avoid mildew, Larry Lerner, owner of Miner's Patio and Casual Furniture, recommends choosing acrylic fabrics that let cushions dry quickly.
3. Bigger is better. Mel O'Donnell of Sarasota Fireplace & Barbecue Centers says homeowners want larger grills for entertaining. "A 42-inch grill could feed 25 people easily," he says. The newer grills have not only more space but more BTUs, so they can cook food faster. And Burdelik recommends installing a range hood for venting. "A lot of people think they can put a grill in and not vent it. But smoke will stay in the lanai. We've had many situations where we've come back after six months and ended up putting a hood in."
4. Don't forget the burners. "Most people have done a lot of grilling but haven't used side burners." says Billy Friedli of Outdoor Kitchens. "But the side burner can make your outdoor kitchen as useful as the indoor kitchen because it can do all the things you want to go with a meal. You can cook vegetables, do pancakes or cook aromatic things like fried fish or a big pot of shrimp that you don't want in the house. I use mine as much as my grill."
5. The ice age is over. There's no need to tote bags of ice to the patio when you can install an outdoor refrigerator. You'll need a commercial-grade unit that can withstand the heat of a Florida summer. If you entertain often, a separate icemaker will keep the cubes coming for all those refreshing drinks. A beverage center keeps water and cold drinks chilled. And a dedicated wine chiller will maintain wines at the proper temperature for elegant alfresco dining.
6. Make it secure. The more equipment you design into your outdoor kitchen, the more important it is to secure it. Good yard lighting is essential. Motion detectors will trigger outside lights to go on instantly or sound an alarm unless you turn it off in five minutes. While you're at it, remember to install good lighting in the kitchen area itself. You'll want to see how well the steaks are done after the sun goes down.
7. Garnish to taste. An outdoor kitchen is designed for leisure, so consider adding the extra touches that make entertaining easier or simply more fun. Warming drawers keep burgers and buns warm while kids are splashing in the pool. A cutting board near the grill facilitates food preparation. Also cool: a built-in beer tap, wine cooler or a "butler." "We're selling a lot of 'bartenders' that hold wine or alcohol and include an ice chest plus little compartments for lemon wedges, olives and such," Burdelik says.