Alfresco at Home


Sacramentans are embracing alfresco dining with a vengeance.

Local homeowners in record numbers are remodeling their yards to create luxurious outdoor kitchens and upscale entertaining spaces. The humble hibachi is being supplanted by professional-style built-in barbecues, the simple redwood picnic table by elaborate serving islands complete with pizza ovens and stainless-steel fridges. The back yard—once an expanse of green lawn, perhaps with a small deck or patio—is being carved up into “rooms” and outfitted with items, such as fireplaces, normally associated with the inside of the house.

“People have always enjoyed dining outdoors,” says landscape designer Gary Kernick. “But now they’re doing it in a much bigger way.”

Nationally, alfresco dining has been finding favor post-9/11, as people instinctively look to home as a comforting place to be. Yankelovich Inc., a marketing firm that tracks consumer attitudes, recently coined the term “hiving” to describe Americans’ growing desire for houses that allow them to spend more time outdoors with family and friends. “A hive is a home designed to open out and facilitate connection,” notes J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich. “Through hiving, home is the best place to re-establish relationships and connect with others.”

Sacramento’s temperate weather makes spending time in the great outdoors even more appealing. Here, residents easily can be outside six or more months of the year. To many homeowners, that long season makes spending money on outdoor cooking and dining spaces look like a smart decision.

Anthony and Evelyn Gonsalves are among those who have made that decision. The Carmichael couple recently remodeled their back yard, constructing a 40-by-20-foot open-air pavilion that houses a fireplace, wood-fired pizza oven, built-in gas barbecue and tile-topped bar, complete with a sink and an under-the-counter refrigerator and icemaker. The couple, who have four grown sons and two grandchildren, entertain frequently and host Sunday night dinners for their family. “Before, we hardly ever used the outside,” says Anthony Gonsalves, a lobbyist. “Since we put in the fireplace and pizza oven, we use it all the time.”

To make the space even more usable, the couple installed overhead fans to cool it down in summer and portable heaters to keep it warm in winter. Overhead, an elegant wrought-iron chandelier provides lighting, and the couple can draw canvas curtains around the space to shield their guests from sun and wind. The only thing missing? A television—but the couple’s sons are lobbying for one so they can watch sports outside.
“It’s a great extension of the house,” says Anthony Gonsalves.

Manufacturers are catering to people like the Gonsalveses with a host of appliances for outdoor cooking and entertaining. Inspired by consumers’ love affair with high-end kitchen appliances, DCS pioneered the heavy-duty professional-style outdoor barbecue, and Wolf, Dacor, Thermador and Viking followed suit with commercial-style systems that can produce up to 100,000 Btu of firepower. Other outdoor appliances on the market include side burners, refrigerators, icemakers, wine coolers, warming drawers and patio heaters.

There’s even something called a “kegerator,” a draft beer-dispensing unit that can be installed in an outdoor island. “You can really have some fun parties with that,” says David Vincent, sales manager at A & A Appliance in Sacramento.

Outdoor kitchens don’t come cheap. Vincent estimates you will spend $5,000 to $7,000 for midrange appliances, while a top-of-the-line barbecue alone will set you back $5,000. Factor in the cost of construction for an island to house those appliances and you easily can spend $25,000 or more for an outdoor kitchen.

Many people opting for outdoor kitchens also want a nice space in which to entertain their guests before and after meals. For them, a popular feature is the built-in fireplace. It provides a focal point and a gathering spot, a place to congregate with friends for cocktails before dinner or for coffee after. Cynthia and Steve Edwards recently added an outdoor fireplace to the back yard of their Arden Park Vista home. “It gives us a reason to go out in the yard,” says Cynthia Edwards, an interior designer. “After it was built, we lit a fire and roasted marshmallows, and the kids fell asleep out there. It was fun.”

A built-in fireplace is another pricey item—according to Kernick, who designed the Edwardses’, it will run you $7,000 to $10,000.

But you don’t have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to have great outdoor spaces. “There’s a lot to be said for living simply,” says Sacramento-based landscape designer David Gibson, who believes all you need is a comfortable place to sit and some pretty plantings. “Alfresco living is not dependent on all these toys,” he says, referring to high-end outdoor appliances.

Instead, Gibson advises clients to spend their money on good outdoor furniture. “It’s wonderful to have a big serving piece like a console table, so you don’t have to run back inside to get a pitcher of lemonade or a bottle of wine,” he says. Use your imagination: He once topped an old metal balcony from a salvage shop with a slab of limestone to create a console table.

Greg Harris, owner of Eden Designs-Landscape Planners in El Dorado Hills, agrees with Gibson. “You can do a very nice entertaining area for under $1,000,” he points out. The classic Weber kettle grill, a nice table and chairs, and a few attractive plantings are all you need to create a dining space that will draw you out into the yard all summer long. “It’s the little touches that make a space great,” he says.