Debbie Mays realized a long-held dream in July, when she and partner Neil Miller opened up their brand new outdoor kitchen and bar to friends and family for a party.
"That morning, the doors were put in, and the party began, and it was spectacular," she said. "Having an outdoor kitchen was something I'd wanted since I was a little girl."
Mays and Miller worked with landscape designer Chris Pluemer from Glen Arm-based Pinehurst Landscape Co. to add a full kitchen to their Reisterstown backyard, which was already outfitted with a pool. The new addition, a covered space with lighting and ceiling fans, includes granite countertops, reclaimed barn wood cabinet doors, a bar that seats 10, a stove and double rotisserie, a sink and a refrigerator.
"It has a big roof, so you can sit at the bar and feel like you're in Jamaica," she said.
Since that first shindig, Mays and Miller say they haven't stopped entertaining.
Over the past several years, outdoor rooms have grown in popularity, says Mark Ramos, vice president of operations at local furniture and home accessory company Offenbachers, which has locations in Hunt Valley and Columbia.
"People are taking their decks, patios and outside spaces and creating an environment that is an extension of their home," he said.
That translates into elaborate outdoor kitchens and bars, like Mays' and Miller's space, as well as dedicated dining spaces and areas designed for lounging with friends.
Outdoor projects vary significantly in terms of scope, according to Pinehurst President Ted Carter. "Some people want a little hideaway in the backyard, where they can spend an afternoon drinking tea and remaining quiet," he said. "Other people think of a little gathering as 50 people."
When it comes to outdoor dining and entertaining spaces, Pinehurst projects have ranged from simple patios designed to hold a grill and a single table to elaborate outdoor kitchens, wet bars, gazebos and pergolas. Pergolas, which are beamed structures that offer some shade, are sometimes outfitted with retractable sunshades.
Budgets for outdoor entertaining spaces also vary widely. Sprucing up an existing patio with some new furniture might only run a couple hundred dollars, while installing a full kitchen might cost well into six figures.
According to the home design website Houzz, in a 2015 survey of homeowners working on outdoor projects, 65 percent of those working with professionals spent more than $10,000 on the upgrades; 11 percent spent $75,000 or more.
Those budgets include visible items, such as stone and appliances, as well as some less glamorous costs, like grading and drainage systems.
"Unless you're working on a pretty flat site, be mindful of how the installation of a patio and kitchen will affect drainage of water away from your home," said Carter. "It isn't a very sexy issue — when people are dreaming about entertaining their families, they're not dreaming about drainage — but if done poorly, it can be a really big headache after the fact."
The investment is not without return. The National Association of Realtors reports that outdoor entertaining upgrades can add significant value to the home. Tiki bars add a 14 percent premium to the sale price of a home, an outdoor fireplace adds 22 percent and an outdoor kitchen adds 26 percent.
Traditionally, outdoor entertaining spaces were more common in homes in the South, where the climate is milder. However, in recent years, fire pits and other outdoor heating elements have increased in popularity, making outdoor rooms a more viable option in the Mid-Atlantic.
"Fire pits are very popular," Ramos said. "Instead of hibernating from the end of September or early October, with a fire pit and a couple patio heaters, we're sitting outside, entertaining all the way into November and December. And come March, when we're usually indoors at night, we can fire up the fire pit and have people over. We're taking a five- to six-month normal swing of using space and turning it into nine months."
Fire pits also offer ambient lighting — another factor to consider when designing an appealing outdoor space.
"Lights and lighting can knock it out of the park. If you have the opportunity, string something up — something as simple as Christmas lights or as elaborate as a chandelier," said Jenny Davids, a Severna Park resident and owner of Hen House Linens.
At one party, Davids hung a painted fishing buoy from a limb that extended over the dining table, then strung lights leading up to the buoy. The display was easy to create, she said, and the effect was fun and surprising.
Baltimore interior designer Michelle Miller stresses the importance of outdoor lighting to creating an inviting entertaining space. "If you can, add a series of wall sconces that provide a rhythmic feature," she said.
She also noted that wireless lighting options are a good fit for yards without easy access to electricity. "Use rechargeable glow lanterns," she said. "They add soft lighting to tabletops and stairs."
Miller said the best outdoor spaces make room for entertainment. "My husband loves his music," she said, recommending hard-wired speakers or investing in a wireless speaker system.
Outdoor televisions are also fun additions to covered spaces, Carter said — especially during early football season, when the weather is ideal for outdoor game-watching.
Creating special outdoor spaces doesn't necessarily involve construction. Simply thinking carefully about how to make the most of the layout and features of your yard is invaluable, experts say, and being open-minded in terms of furniture organization can pay off in surprising ways.
"A lot of people come in with a preset notion of having a dining table for six," said Jeremy Steinberg, Offenbachers' vice president of sales. "But you should go out and see the options and ask what other people are doing. My eyes are continually opened to different seating groups and tables."
He recommends shopping with an open mind — and a set of measurements for your yard, so when you are in the store, you will know what furniture will and will not fit in your space.
Think in terms of flexibility, too; dining tables do not necessarily have to be parked on a patio.
"It's fun to take the table somewhere outside the ordinary," Davids said. "A far corner of the yard, on a dock, if you have a tree you just love. We recently did a little going-away party for a good friend. We set tables up poolside, which looked really cool and was fun. We did it as an 'L,' all facing each other, so we could talk back and forth."
Memorable entertaining spaces don't require acres of land, either.
Steinberg said his Fells Point backyard is small — only about 220 square feet — but he still prefers entertaining friends and family at home versus going out.
"We have Adirondack chairs and a small bistro table, and we grill," he said.
Ramos added that outdoor furniture companies have begun catering to customers with smaller backyards, including those who live in cities or in condos, by creating small-scale outdoor furniture.
"One thing we're seeing as a trend is deep seating — big and deep and cushy — on a smaller scale, so you can still have the love seat, lounge and coffee table and fit in a 7-by-10-foot space," he said.
Whether the project is big or small, the desire to upgrade an outdoor dining space is often brought on by a major life event.
"It's interesting to hear the stories behind the reasons people come into our stores," said Steinberg. "A lot of the time, they tell us they're hosting a graduation party or just had a grandchild. They're looking to build spaces to make memories — and that's what they're doing."
Since opening up their new outdoor kitchen earlier this summer, Mays and Miller have hosted their grown children on a number of occasions.
"We entertain a lot, and it keeps the family together," Mays said. "My children are there all the time with their future husbands and wives. It's like being on vacation every day. It's amazing, fantastic. I love it!"
Tips for entertaining
Entertaining outside can be a blast, but it requires a slightly different touch than hosting gatherings indoors. Local entertaining experts and designers offer their tips on how best to entertain al fresco.
Use the good stuff: Plastic plates and paper napkins are great, but don't be afraid to use real china and silverware outside, says Jenny Davids of Hen House Linens; doing so makes an outdoor table look especially lovely. "It makes a big difference. When you go outside and set a table like you would inside, it's always stunning."
Consider staging logistics: "You do have to think about the logistics of serving your meal," Davids says. She solves that problem by setting up a side table for drinks, to stage the food before setting it out and to stash dirty dishes after dinner. She dresses that table with linens to match the main table, so it is both functional and stylish.
Go big and comfy: "I recommend buying the longest table you can fit in your space," says interior designer Michelle Miller. "There is nothing like having a large group of friends and family over to enjoy a great meal together." She also suggests seeking out comfortable dining chairs so guests will want to linger over dessert after dinner.
Focus on hors d'oeuvres: Outdoor entertaining doesn't always have to involve dinner. "It's a pain to lug stuff outside and especially to rooftop decks," says Michael Wright of MiY Home in Fells Point. "So a lot of people prefer deep seating and doing appetizers on trays and sitting like it's a living room more than a kitchen."
Invest in carriers: Since Reisterstown resident Debbie Mays does not have a dishwasher in her outdoor kitchen, she uses plastic rolling drawers bought at Target to cart dishes and other items from her indoor kitchen to her outdoor space. "I keep dishes in them and roll them in and out, so I don't have to worry about bugs," she says, noting that she also uses oversized, sealable plastic containers to keep chips and other food bug-free.
From design to technology, local experts have spotted several trends related to outfitting outdoor entertaining spaces:
Gussed-up grills: As interest in food and cooking increases among people of all ages, homeowners are gravitating toward fancier grilling and smoking products, says Mark Ramos of furniture store Offenbachers. "People recognize the value of going with a higher-end grill with a longer-term warranty," he says. "It gives you a better quality of food."
Sleek and contemporary: Historically, outdoor furniture options have been fairly traditional, but in recent years, manufacturers have introduced more contemporary and sleek designs. "A lot of people are decorating more with chrome and brushed steel in their homes and that is showing up in the outdoors, too," Ramos says.
Mix it up: "Earlier this summer, we completed a terrace overlooking the harbor in Baltimore and mixed several different styles of woven furniture from Janice et Cie," says interior designer Michelle Miller. "Using different collections creates a visual treat for the eye. Don't be afraid to mix materials and colors for a more dynamic space." Miller also notes that fabric makers like Schumacher and Holly Hunt have expanded their outdoor offerings in recent years, including textures like linen and velvet, all in outdoor-friendly finishes.
Advanced tech: Not only have outdoor fabrics improved in recent years, cushion and frame technology have gotten better, as well. "There's foam that allows cushions to drain and dry really quickly and spring technology that goes right back into shape," says Ramos. "Furniture has to stand up to the outdoors, and what's under the hood is really high-end."