The perfect kitchen for entertaining and every day

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The open kitchen is more popular than ever—but with a twist. It’s now designed to accommodate parties, homework, and even multiple cooks. And many electronic devices are finding a new home in the kitchen.

Despite all of the benefits of the social kitchen, creating one can be a challenge. That’s where our 2014 Kitchen Remodeling Guide comes in. Want to know which floors hold up best to heavy foot traffic? Our flooring buying guide can help. Looking for a whisper-quiet dishwasher that won’t drown out the after-dinner conversation? Check our dishwasher buying guide and Ratings.

Before you delve into the product reports, read our essential steps to creating a truly social kitchen, along with our advice for hiring professionals, planning the budget, and sidestepping those trends that haven’t stood the test of time.

1. Open up the space—with care (shown above). Be judicious about how many barriers you eliminate. “Too many pathways moving through the space will lead to chaos,” says Sharon Olsen, a certified kitchen designer in Portland, Ore. Using half-walls or arched openings can create a sense of openness while maintaining traffic flow.

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It's also important to visually integrate the kitchen with the rest of the home. “The latest iteration of the open kitchen sees it as an  ‘interior design’ feature within a larger living/dining space,” says Erica Broberg Smith, an architect based in East Hampton, N.Y. Color can be a great connector. Repeat a hue from the living room in your choice of artwork on the kitchen walls, for example, or the color of your countertop appliances.

Shown counterclockwise, above:

2. Create activity areas. Establishing zones will help organize the space, especially in multicook kitchens. The layout should steer children away from the main work triangle, formed by the refrigerator, range, and dishwasher and sink.

Put a beverage and snack station toward the public-facing edge of the kitchen. That helps keep kids—and guests—away from the hot stove and sharp knives. The station might take the shape of a wet bar, with a wine chiller and sink. Or the emphasis could be on coffee and snacks, with a coffeemaker, a cabinet for cups and mugs, and a refrigerator drawer for milk and juice boxes.

If you love to bake, add a baking station. Unlike the other zones, this one should be near the oven, with room for baking supplies and equipment, and a marble countertop for rolling out dough.
 
3. Contain the mess. Some homeowners resist an open kitchen because they don’t want guests staring at messy pots and pans. But there are ways around the dilemma. In the kitchen featured here, a peripheral cleanup zone, with sink, dishwasher, and expansive landing area for dirty dishes, helps keep the mess off to the side during dinner parties; a second island prep sink serves the main work triangle. Another strategy is to add a raised bar to the  “public” side of a kitchen island. That will give guests a place to perch during meal prep, then homeowners can hide the mess from view once dinner is under way. An island bar also provides seating during casual meals.

[Click to find a home contractor who can help with your kitchen renovation now.]

4. Create a drop zone. When the kitchen is the nucleus of the home, it can become a dumping ground for papers, bags, jackets, and the like. A well-appointed “drop zone,” usually located just off the kitchen, will provide a place for those items so that they won’t enter the kitchen in the first place. If space permits, consider a full-sized mudroom with a durable flooring material, such as stone or ceramic; open shelves with baskets assigned to each family member; and plenty of hooks. A hallway closet can also be converted into a functional drop zone, especially in smaller households.

Shown left to right, above:

5. Bring back the eat-in kitchen. Casual dining is integral to the social kitchen, and it’s good for resale value too. In fact, the eat-in kitchen was among the most desired features in a 2013 survey of homebuyers by the National Association of Realtors. Built-in banquettes are making a comeback. “Children love them, and they are great for cozy informal dining,” says Broberg. They’re also a place to pay the bills and do the homework (or at least see that it gets done). And the base of a banquette can provide additional storage space for napkins, tablecloths, and other accessories.

Add an island. This central counter will give people a place to sit while you’re preparing the meal. Just don’t let it clog traffic. There should be 42 to 48 inches of clearance on all sides.

When entertaining, an island can function as an interactive buffet. “Food has gone from something you serve at a party to something you do at a party,” says Steven Raichlen, author of “Man Made Meals: The Essential Cookbook for Guys.” Mindy Weiss, a party planner based in Los Angeles, likes to arrange salad bars, panini stations, and other dishes on the island that bring guests into the food-prep experience. Another crowd pleaser: Fill an island prep sink with ice and use it for a raw bar or a place to serve chilled drinks.

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6. Build in charging stations. For many people the kitchen is where their electronic devices live. Charging stations can be tucked into a cabinet or drawer that’s fitted with docks and electrical outlets. If you need to charge only a couple of devices, Leviton and other manufacturers make electrical outlets with built-in USB ports that can be installed in a kitchen backsplash, letting you power your smart phone while running the blender or stand mixer.

Other measures to consider

Let your devices talk to each other. In the last year Dacor and GE have introduced wall ovens and ranges that you can control and monitor from your smart phone, for example preheating the oven from the backyard or checking the status of a roast chicken while you’re doing laundry. “In that sense technology is actually freeing up the cook from being in the kitchen,” says Shelia Schmitz, editor of Houzz.com, a home design website. Given how much time we’re spending in today’s social kitchen, an occasional break might be a good thing.

Pay attention to acoustics. The drawback to open kitchens is noise. “With the hardwood floors and stone countertops that everyone wants, it can sound like a restaurant on Saturday night,” Olsen says. Soft layers, such as an area rug in the adjacent room, will help absorb the sound. Also pay attention to the appliances. A dishwasher that scores an excellent for noise will be less distracting than one that’s average or worse. And many wall ovens have a cooling fan that runs for a few minutes after the unit is turned off, a gripe with some consumers.

[Click to find a home contractor who can help with your kitchen renovation now.]

This article also appeared in the July 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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