The residents of Chicago's suburbs have always loved spending as much time as possible outdoors during the warm weather months, probably as a result of all the time they are forced to spend indoors when the snow is falling and the winds are blowing relentlessly.
In fact, we are even known as pioneers when it comes to outdoor dining, in particular, because the iconic Weber grill was invented and tested in Northwest suburban Mount Prospect and it has been produced in Palatine for years.
That is why it isn't too surprising, despite our relatively short season, that our friends and neighbors are investing in high-end outdoor kitchens and fancy dining amenities to further enhance their warm weather dining experiences.
"It seems that people of all ages want to bring all of their indoor amenities outdoors," explained Dan Mayer, owner of Northwest Metalcraft in Arlington Heights. "They long to get outside in the fresh air and relax when they aren't working."
No longer content to simply grill outside, many are choosing to fully prepare their meals outside.
According to Mayer, the kitchens being built in backyards around the Northwest suburbs are even getting larger (ranging from $10,000 to $150,000), complete with bar sets and bar stools so that guests can enjoy a drink while watching the homeowner prepare dinner.
"Granite countertops hold up well outside, so we supply them to the landscapers that actually construct the kitchens. We also supply refrigerators, cabinet doors and warming drawers, among other things," Mayer said.
Even purists are supplementing their traditional grills with ceramic smokers and cookers which slow cook items like roasts and chickens year-round. Northwest Metalcraft sells Kamado Joe cookers which burn lump charcoal, as well as pellet grills like the Black Olive which burn apple and hickory wood pellets.
"The Black Olive comes with electronics that let you set a timer and just leave it. It makes you an awesome cook and sells for between $1,500 and $1,600," Mayer said.
Of course, they also sell the traditional charcoal-burning Weber grills and infrared gills that sear in the juices, thus preserving the flavor of meats. And when it comes to dining furniture, Mayer said he has more than 150 medium to high-end sets available which include all-weather wicker, wrought iron, cast aluminum and even stone-top tables.
Mike Haumersen, outdoor living specialist with Belgard Hardscapes, agreed about the popularity of outdoor dining today.
"When I was young, everyone had a Weber grill and that was it. But today, drive around and you will see that this outdoor living movement has taken off. It seems that everyone has outdoor gathering areas from homes to condominium complexes, apartment complexes and even hotels and businesses," he stated.
"A recent survey showed that, other than fireplaces, dining and cooking facilities are the second most popular outdoor amenity. So we make sure we can provide people with anything they want, from a basic six-foot grill island, all the way up to a full outdoor kitchen with dishwasher, kegerator, brick oven, sink, etc.," he explained.
Belgard is a leading manufacturer of paver stones and blocks, as well as of outdoor elements like kitchens, fireplaces, water features and fire pits, all of which are made in a factory using Belgard blocks and pavers and then installed by a homeowner's landscape design firm.
"For example, our brick ovens are incredibly popular for cooking turkeys, chickens, pizza, bread, briskets, almost anything. They are convection-type ovens using hardwood fires and they are lots of fun and great for a party," Haumersen said. "We usually install them at one end of a patio and they are about eight and a half feet tall, sitting on a 4-by-4-foot platform."
Many patio designers choose to divide outdoor spaces into "rooms" for different purposes with a cooking area, gathering area, etc., he continued.
"I have seen everything, but almost every kitchen we do includes a bar ledge and bar stools so that people have a way to gather around the kitchen, which they seem to like to do, both indoors and out," Haumersen said.
The budget-conscious will contain themselves to a grill island and sometimes a brick oven. Others will go full-on and have an entire kitchen built.
But Haumersen stressed that outdoor cooking/dining facilities can be built in stages, once a comprehensive plan has been formulated. Belgard also offers financing through its contractors.
Those outdoor cooking and dining spaces can be further enhanced with outdoor lighting, fans, heat and sound systems.
Chandeliers made for outdoor dining, for instance, can be hung from gazebos, pergolas and overhangs to make an outdoor dining experience more romantic or festive, according to Jennifer Jensen, residential lighting manager for NorthWest Lighting and Accents in Mount Prospect and McHenry.
Outdoor fans can also be installed which provide air movement on sweltering days and nights and can even be equipped with sound system speakers, heaters or lights. Outdoor lamps with grounded cords are also now available for added outdoor atmosphere.
"Today's homeowner is able to create the full outdoor experience throughout their outdoor living area, complete with lighting, audio and fans and heaters for temperature control," Thomas Reindl, commercial lighting manager, explained. "They just need to plan in advance so they can put in the correct size transformer, which is the backbone of any system. After that, they can implement their plan gradually."
Special lighting is now also available to illuminate grills and outdoor kitchens. NorthWest Lighting and Accents can even illuminate the insides of drawers in outdoor kitchens to facilitate finding stored items at night and can offer backlit countertops which add to aesthetics and usability of those popular outdoor cooking spaces.
"We can make the entire countertop glow if that is what the homeowner wants," Reindl said.
The use of oscillating fans and heaters to control the outdoor environment has also evolved. Fans move the air on sweltering days and nights and also tend to drive away pesky bugs that avoid air currents, according to Jensen.
The increased use of LED lighting also cuts down on insect invasions because they generate less heat than conventional lights and bugs are drawn to heat, Reindl added.
Homeowners who like to cook outdoors, even in the middle of winter, can also invest in sub-patio heating elements which keep the grilling area free of snow, Jensen said, extending the useful life of their patio each year.