Kitchen islands have been one of the hottest features in kitchen design for years now. As floor plans become more open and homeowners consistently favor a barrier-free layout, kitchen islands have seemingly become the ideal piece of furniture, providing storage, seating, and prep space, and allowing guests to interact with the cook while food is being prepared. But lately some homeowners have been bucking the trend in favor of a few more traditional options, like a kitchen table, breakfast nook, or formal dining table. Each type of seating offers its own advantages and drawbacks, and creates a different dining experience.
Kitchen islands have been embraced so wholeheartedly in no small part because of their versatility. They can be custom designed in a variety of ways to include (or not) a variety of features. A “fully equipped” island can have a sink, a cooktop, a prep station, dishwasher, storage cabinets, and even a built in oven or microwave, all with comfortable seating for two, four, or more, and a smooth top that’s ideally suited for food preparation. But as the kitchen has become the gathering hub of the home, many families are finding that heavily equipped kitchen islands don’t always leave a lot of room for things like schoolwork. And while islands allow guests to interact with the cook while a meal is being prepared, the bar-style seating doesn’t provide the face-to-face experience that many prefer for family gatherings.
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Reverting back to the classic kitchen table is one option that’s regaining popularity. This is somewhat surprising, because ordinary kitchen tables lack many of the features of kitchen islands – really, almost all of them except the addition of some usable flat surfaces. The key difference is that they can comfortably seat about twice as many people, allowing a larger family to eat together at the same time, seated face to face. And because kitchen tables aren’t really needed for food preparation the way kitchen islands are, they offer more free space for kids to do homework or art projects, staying in the same room with the family without getting underfoot.
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One of my personal favorite alternatives to the kitchen island is the humble built-in breakfast nook. Styled after restaurant booths and often built adjacent to a window, breakfast nooks offer the perfect amount of space for a small family to dine casually and great warm morning and afternoon sunlight. By design, nooks are tucked away out of the way of the preparation area, which means they don’t have quite the sense of involvement you get from sitting at a kitchen island right across from a cooktop, so they aren’t quite as good for entertaining, but they have the face-to-face aspect that’s great for family meals. Plus, because the table is out of the way, it can easily be used for homework after school, especially if you also have a main dining table you use for dinners.
Perhaps the most surprising shift is the recent revival of the formal dining room. Since the kitchen island has more or less taken over the role of the conventional kitchen table, full dining sets fell somewhat out of vogue. But separate formal dining rooms (or, in a very large, open kitchen, a formal dining area at the far end of the kitchen) with a large table and cushy, upholstered dining chairs have made huge gains in popularity recently. This setup doesn’t have the same intimacy and accessibility of dining in the kitchen, but it can often seat quite a few more people (especially with a table that extends and a few spare dining chairs), making it a superior option if you frequently entertain large groups.
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Which of these four options (or which combination of two or more of them) will work best for you depends on a couple of factors. First and foremost it’s important to consider how many people will be eating in your home on a regular basis. Note that I didn’t say how many people are in your family – families with a busy schedule who tend to eat and run will need less seating that a smaller family that eats every meal together. How often and how many people you entertain at a time matters, too, as people who do a lot of entertaining may want to dedicate a separate space for guests, either a formal dining room or an entertainment-centric kitchen island (with a built in cooktop and wine cooler, say) in addition to the typical family eating area.
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Space also needs to be a lead consideration, not just in terms of the number of seats, but in how much and what space your dining furniture takes up. Having a formal dining table means sacrificing a full room in your home, while a more intimate breakfast nook or a small round kitchen table can take up very little space. If you plan to have a kitchen table or island with seating in your kitchen, it’s crucial that you make sure to choose one that’s the right size. You don’t want a table so large it will dominate the kitchen, and even more importantly, you want one small enough that you can open and access all your cabinets without bumping into any of your chairs or stools while people are sitting in them. Adequate clearance is amazingly important to the day to day usability of your kitchen, so make sure to keep size and spacing at the forefront of your decision, whatever type of table you end up with.