There was a time when a good part of the American dream was to own a home with a backyard. Dad would drive to the hardware store right before Memorial Day and buy a “barbecue” for summer cookouts. Then, until Labor Day, the whole family would gather around the redwood picnic table, feasting on charcoal-grilled hot dogs and hamburgers—while mom ran in and out of her kitchen preparing the rest of the supper.

Enter the 21st century. Homes have grown. Gourmet kitchens have opened into great rooms. Modest patches of green have morphed into landscaped gardens complete with deck or patio, hot tubs, and swimming pools. And the once-humble barbecue is evolving into what may be one of the next significant home trends—the outdoor kitchen.

“People are really looking at their outdoor spaces differently,” claims Dan Lally, director of public relations at Frontgate, an upscale home furnishings company that specializes in outdoor grills and furnishings. “It's no longer an afterthought, and they want to turn it into something they can use for three seasons.” Consequently, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA), the backyard has blossomed into a fully furnished outdoor living space designed as an extension of a home's interior.

In a recent analysis of 2002 Barbecue Shipments, HPBA findings indicate that the nation's move toward the outdoor kitchen is being perpetuated by a combination of factors, not least of which is the fact that currently 60 percent of all grill owners cook outdoors year-round (a figure that rises to nearly 70 percent for gas grill owners.) To accommodate them, an increasing number of manufacturers are offering high-quality, all-weather outdoor cooking appliances and heaters to enable year-round use. In addition, the study continues, this lifestyle shift is supported by the steep growth in second homes, an increase in new housing starts, and growing investments in home remodeling with an emphasis on outdoor amenities.

Donna Myers, HPBA barbecue spokesperson, reports that of the $160 billion dollars spent on remodeling in 2001, more than half was spent on the outdoors. In addition, she adds, sales of built-in grills are up a full third since 2000 and pre-fabricated island sales continue a strong upward trend.

“What we see happening,” observes Shaun Chinsky, brand manager of the Weber-Stephen Vieluxe brand of luxury grills, “is that consumers who have remodeled their kitchens with commercial-grade appliances are now turning their attention to the backyard. And they want a grill that is consistent with the appliances they have in their kitchen.” Moreover, respondents of Weber's 14th annual GrillWatch survey—a comprehensive inquiry into the outdoor cooking habits of Americans—envisioned their “dream grill” to be self-cleaning, followed closely by a grill that has side burners.

To satiate this hunger for top-quality al fresco equipment, the new Vieluxe brand ups the ante on the traditional Weber grill offering. Fabricated in corrosion-resistant 16-gauge type 304-grade stainless steel, the 27- and 39-inch builtin gas grills are configured much like a slide-in range for easy installation into a custom island. Pre-outfitted with storage drawers, the grill's footings are adjustable and integrated trim provides a uniform appearance with its surround. Each unit features a smoking system, an infrared rotisserie burner in back, and a funnel-shaped bottom tray that directs drippings into a Teflon-coated catch pan for easy cleanup. Powerful side-burner stations are available in drop-in and slide-in versions and come with a protective stainless steel lid.

“There are two types of people who buy our products,” says Viking vice-president of product development Dave Becker, “those who cook and those who want the best.” One of the first indoor-appliance makers to get into the outdoor market, Viking boasts one of the most complete selections of all-weather appliances available today.

“At this point we have the grills in three basic sizes and four configurations comprising various combinations of all-grill and side burners, including a wok element,” explains Becker. “We also have refrigeration, warming drawers, storage, and a beer tap.” The most recent introductions from Viking include a charcoal ceramic grill/smoker, a 24-inch wide outdoor-approved gas oven, and a gourmet bar/entertainment center with a work area, sink, and compartments for ice, condiments and drinks. “It's the piece that finalizes it as an outdoor kitchen,” Becker adds.

“It's really a natural extension of our current market,” says KitchenAid marketing communications manager Julie Bizzis. “Our home enthusiasts have branched out into the outdoor cooking arena in a big way, and they look for quality products.” To comply, the company has expanded it's popular Architect series of stainless steel appliances to include professional-quality grills in a variety of sizes as well as a bar, serving cart, refrigerator, and ice maker.

Dacor entered this market by extending its Epicure group with grills that feature built-in halogen lighting and warming drawers. At DCS the full outdoor complement consists of halogen-lit heavy-duty grills, side burners, warming drawers, a refrigerator, a beer dispenser, and a patio heater. Dynasty (from restaurant supplier Jade), Monogram, Thermador, and Wolf have also made their way outdoors.

In a recent Outdoor Room Tracking Study sponsored by Weber-Stephen, nearly half (44 percent) of the $75,000-plus outdoor room-deprived households surveyed were interested in having an outdoor kitchen, so it is apparent that this is not a fad. That view is corroborated by the high satisfaction level of actual outdoor kitchen owners polled: More than a third say this space adds to their quality of life.

“It's part of the whole nesting trend,” surmises Chinsky. “It's an investment that adds value to their home, and they can enjoy it with their family.”—Linda C. Lentz is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Simple Solutions “We suggest you start with a plan,” HPBA spokesperson Donna Myers advises builders.“Then even if you don't install an entire outdoor room, you (or the homeowner) will be able to do it in stages.”

To do this, she suggests that you get in all the required electrical and plumbing, such as water lines for sinks and gas lines for the grills—although all come with liquid propane options.“It's good to have the utilities in place,” she says.“It's much less expensive to do it initially.”

To maximize design and installation, several suppliers provide packages that comprise everything you need (minus utilities) to impress clients with a top-notch job. Kenmore's Elite gas grills have optional granite-faced island cabinets that simply attach to each side of the grill to add an additional 6-foot serving and preparation area. Frontgate offers quantity and trade discounts for its selection of grills, accessories, and islands finished in the likes of granite and stainless steel. And the all-stainless Meridian models from Ducane can be housed in a stucco island outfitted with coordinating access doors and a tile counter.

For instant gratification, the Vintage Outdoor Kitchen is all-inclusive with a 56-inch gas grill, side burners, halogen light, refrigerator, warming drawer, bartending center, and trash compartment.While the Cal Flame Sports Bar and Grill not only houses the required culinary trappings, it's bound to seduce upscale buyers with its four awnings, task and mood lighting, three 9-inch flat-panel monitors, DVD and CD systems, and marine speakers.The price for all this luxury: $23,000 to $27,000, depending on options.