Outdoor Kitchen Layouts | Our Experts Help You Plan

When you stare out at your backyard or patio and dream of the outdoor kitchen that’ll soon stand there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the possibilities. Should the grill go up against the house, with an outdoor fridge and sink on either side? Or would it look better by itself on one side of an L-shaped island? Could you fit a few more components that way, or would that break the budget? Will you have enough counter space? (You’ll be asking yourself that last last question a lot.)

Speculating about your dream outdoor space might be fun for a little while, but you’ll eventually have to start making some concrete decisions (some of which may actually involve concrete). When that time comes, it’ll help to know a thing or two about outdoor kitchen layouts. We asked our outdoor kitchen design experts to give you a crash course on the subject, covering everything you need to know about work zones and the different types of BBQ islands.

Planning Outdoor Kitchen Zones

Indoor kitchen designers often talk about the work triangle, the idea that a kitchen’s 3 main work spaces — the cooktop, sink, and fridge — should form a 3-sided polygon (if only there was a word for that). Maintaining a natural and unobstructed flow between each point of the work triangle makes cooking much easier and more efficient, so indoor kitchens are often laid out in service of the triangle.

Outdoor kitchens, however, feature 4 main work spaces instead of 3, making that tried-and-true triangle into more of a square. But the same idea still applies: creating a natural flow for cooking and, in this case, entertaining. We refer to these outdoor kitchen areas as the cooking, prep, plate-and-serve, and entertainment zones. You don’t have to deck out each outdoor kitchen zone with components and appliances — your prep zone, for example, can be nothing more than counter space — but they’re good to keep in mind as you ponder your layout. With functionality, convenience, and safety in mind, let’s take a look at the 4 different outdoor kitchen zones.

  • Cooking Zone

    The main attraction of most BBQ island layouts, the cooking zone houses built-in grills, smokers, side burners, griddles, and even pizza ovens (don’t underestimate the power of pizza night in your backyard). It should also include room for doors and drawers that both provide access to gas lines and store indispensable grilling utensils. Propane grillers benefit from a propane tank bin to keep unsightly fuel cylinders tucked away, and regardless of gas type, your cooking zone must have proper outdoor kitchen ventilation to clear your space of potentially harmful fumes.

  • Prep Zone

    As stated above, your prep zone can be a simple patch of open counter space. But you should at least consider including a sink, unless you want to make several trips inside to wash veggies and then dishes after dinner. The convenience only increases with the addition of outdoor kitchen storage components like roll-out trash bins, paper towel holders, cutting boards, and dry storage. No matter how big you go with your prep zone (remember, your outdoor kitchen planning depends on your space and wants), it should be adjacent to the cooking zone to improve overall efficiency.

  • Plate-and-Serve Zone

    You know what else should be right next to the cooking zone? A place to put down burgers and steaks once they’re done grilling. That’s the role of the plate-and-serve zone, which prevents hungry guests from crowding around the hot grill and makes the lunch line run much smoother. A stretch of open counter space where you can lay out a serving tray and stack of plates is often enough, but a warming drawer can really come in handy if you’re cooking food in multiple batches for a large group of family and friends. Trust us, they’ll appreciate knowing where to go for grub.

  • Entertainment Zone

    This zone is home to outdoor bar equipment and refrigeration appliances like beverage fridges, ice makers, wine coolers, and kegerators. In short, it’s where your guests go when it’s time to have a good time. Keep in mind that there should be a buffer, whether it’s distance or insulation, between the entertainment and cooking zones — heat from a grill positioned too closely will force refrigeration units to work much harder to stay chilled inside. Also, do you really want Uncle Bob bumping you into your blazing-hot grill grates as he digs through a nearby beer fridge?

Outdoor Kitchen Island Options

Are you in the zone yet? Now that you know about the 4 main areas of most outdoor kitchens, it’s time to consider how you’d like them arranged. As always, your BBQ island planning will be unique to you based on your budget and how much space is available, but there are a few types of grill island layouts you should be familiar with as you start making choices.

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  • Linear BBQ Islands

    Best for budget builders and small spaces, linear islands have a relatively tiny footprint while still serving as functional outdoor kitchens. They typically run along a side of the home (though they can be freestanding) and position the grill in the middle, with components and counter space on either side creating a central unit for simplicity. Because cooking and entertainment zones will be clustered on small linear islands, you may need to install insulation to create a buffer so appliances can operate efficiently. Linear islands are usually paired with a nearby dining table or outdoor seating set to establish a more complete space, but they can stand on their own just fine.

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  • Galley Islands

    Why stop at just 1 island? Galley islands are simply 2 linear islands that run parallel to each other, with an open space in the middle. This outdoor kitchen layout is useful when multiple people are cooking at once, and workflow becomes much more efficient because you can turn around to reach a different zone instead of moving up and down a single island. The possibilities expand with galley islands: they can mirror each other, or you can dedicate one side to prep and cooking zones and the other to entertainment and plate-and-serve zones. We recommend spacing galley islands at least 3 feet apart, but you’ll need to make more room if you expect foot traffic while you’re grilling.

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  • L-Shaped BBQ Islands

    These are the most popular layouts, perhaps because the shape lends itself to a more creative design that can better support the concept of outdoor kitchen zones (still remember those?) — placing your cooking and entertainment zones on opposite legs gives them all the cushion they need. L-shaped islands also help outdoor kitchens feel larger and slightly more enclosed, and even if the second leg is short, the added space means you can include more components. In fact, many of our customers who choose L-shaped islands do so after realizing a linear island can’t fit all the amenities they want. How about bar stools along one side of the island? No wonder the L shape is so popular!

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  • U-Shaped Outdoor Kitchens

    More space, more options, more creativity. That pattern reaches its peak with U-shaped islands, which provide maximum versatility when it comes to both the number of components and location of work zones. While a fully decked-out outdoor kitchen might be desirable, the true effect of U-shaped islands is that they create a cozy, naturally enclosed gathering place. Many homeowners with U-shaped outdoor kitchens reinforce this idea by lining every side with bar stools (just not behind the grill — rear smoke and heat exhaust makes it the worst seat in the house). Some have even begun adding a separate, small island at the opening of the “U” to make the space slightly more enclosed.

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Custom Islands

With shapes that vary from project to project, custom islands are tough to pin down. All you really need to know is that this category includes any BBQ island that doesn’t conform to 1 of the 4 types we’ve already outlined. While prefabricated island kits from RTF Systems make it easy to DIY a conventional grill island, we strongly recommend working with a skilled and experienced contractor if you want a customized design. You should also be aware that, though eye-catching, shapes formed by odds angles will eat up linear space and can possibly limit functionality. Unless your backyard is huge, that might be more trouble than making a stylistic statement is worth.

Other Outdoor Kitchen Layout Details to Consider

At this point, all those backyard possibilities should be crystallizing into a probability. With a firm understanding of work zones and which grill island layout best fits your vision, you can move on to the next step of outdoor kitchen planning. But before you go, spend a few minutes considering a few small details that can further personalize your BBQ island layout:

  • Split-level countertops

  • Foot rails

  • Backsplash

A split-level countertop can totally transform a space, starting with the simple fact that a heightened sitting area places guests above the exhaust from your grill and allows you to have eye-to-eye conversations with them while you’re cooking. Opting for 2 distinct levels also creates a natural barrier between the prep area and dining area on the same countertop, which can eliminate the need for a separate dining table. And — no offense to indoor kitchens — dining or drinking at a flat countertop just feels like you’re at the kitchen table as usual. Doing the same thing at an elevated surface, though… Well, you might as well be having cocktails at the bar.

To further establish a bar-like setting in your outdoor kitchen, you can line the grill island with foot rails. Guests will have a place to rest their dangling feet, and the rail can serve as a stylish design element in its own right. Finally, you want to choose a backsplash that speaks to your personal tastes while standing up to the elements. Feeling better now that we’ve laid everything out for you?