CASUAL KITCHENS: Breakfast Bar Basics

several photos of different breakfast barsBreakfast bars are the perfect complement to today’s popular open floor plans by allowing for easy interactions and casual gatherings. Whether considered a breakfast bar, island or peninsula, this extension of cabinets, countertop and sometimes sink or appliances, serves as a visual foil between the kitchen and other living spaces while maintaining a sense of openness. This kitchen workhorse also provides much needed storage and counter space in what is arguably the busiest room in the house from both a functional and social standpoint. And of course, the breakfast bar serves as an additional eating area, particularly for quick and casual meals – like breakfast!

Breakfast Bar Height Options

Generally, there are three standard height options for breakfast bar counters:  30 inches, 36 inches and 42 inches above the floor.  Within these parameters, the counter height is often staggered so that the work area is either higher or lower than the portion intended for eating, depending on the individual application. To provide an accessible kitchen, the counter workspace should be at least 30 inches wide and countertops are in the range of 28 to 34 inches above the floor.   However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and in fact, varied counter heights may be the best solution for meeting the needs of different people.

breakfast bar with 36 inch work surface and 30 inch eating surfaceWork Surface 36 inches / Eating Surface 30 inches

For some, this example provides the best of both worlds, a comfortable 36 inch height work surface with a lowered 30 inch high area for eating.  This approach is often chosen for older adults since it allows for standard kitchen chairs that provide easier access and greater comfort than typically achieved with a standard bar stool. This height also works well for someone in a wheelchair. The lower stools or chairs (16 to 23 inches) can be a safer option for children. This design could also provide an opportunity to add a decorative tile on the wall between the two countertops for visual interest, particularly when seated at the breakfast bar.

breakfast bar with 36 inch work surface and eating surface36 inches Workspace and Eating Area

This example provides the most counter area with no distinction between eating and working space.  The benefit of this height for the eating area is that it allows for hip height or counter height stools (24 to 27 inches) which are comfortable and easy to get in and out of, particularly for older adults.  As with the previous example, one potential drawback may be in keeping the work counter neat and tidy, as everything is on full display from the surrounding living areas.

breakfast bar with 36 inch work surface and 42 inch eating surface36 inches Workspace and 42 Inches Eating Area

This example is preferred by some because it hides items on the workspace, like dirty dishes or preparation tools, from other living spaces.  When entertaining, the higher portion can also be used as a buffet line with removal of the stools. The potential drawback for this configuration is the requirement of bar height stools (28 to 33 inches) which can pose access and safety challenges for children or older adults.

Pull Up a Seat

Bar stools are the typical choice for sitting around a kitchen counter, providing easy style and versatility for an open floor plan. A key consideration is determining the best option for your situation. As a general rule, we recommend stools with a full back, for maximum comfort and safety, or a low back if you want to maintain visual access into the kitchen while still providing the added security and stability of having some back support. Just be sure to consider the width of the stool, including arms, when determining how many will fit at your counter. The recommended minimum distance between stools is 6 inches for stools up to 18 inches wide and 8 to 10 inches for larger width stools.

kitchen bar areaWhen determining an appropriate height, we recommend leaving 10 to 12 inches between the seat and the underside of the surface.  There are also adjustable options providing flexibility to meet the needs of people of all sizes. Avoid stools that are too top-heavy or have a narrow base that would allow them to tip over easily.  Lightweight options provide the desired flexibility to move them around as needed.  Our firm’s internal design checklist also recommends selecting stools with footrests to make them more comfortable and functional than those that leave legs dangling.

If stools with arms are preferred, we recommend selecting stools that swivel to make it easier to get in and out of the stool without having to back away from the countertop.  This is especially helpful for bar height stools.

Another space planning consideration for a breakfast bar is whether the space behind the chairs is part of the traffic flow.  If that is the case, allow at least 60 inches of space behind where a seated diner would be, particularly when incorporating universal design principles to allow passage for a person in a wheelchair.

Considering these options in advance will improve the functionality and comfort in your kitchen, which is probably the most popular room in the house.  When designed correctly, the breakfast bar will make your kitchen more functional and efficient and will be enjoyed by everyone for many years.

Deb Kimmet, IIDA, LEED AP ID+C, has been working with our clients to develop uniquely distinctive interior design solutions since 1997, including breakfast bars in kitchens of varying sizes, but often on the smaller side. Her dream breakfast bar would be a really large version of the 36 inch height because her ideal kitchen would also have plenty of storage space so she wouldn’t have to worry about clutter on the bar. 

Jodi Kreider, LEED AP, Blog Editor/Co-Author

More information about kitchen design:

31 Ways to a Better Kitchen – National Kitchen and Bath Association Guidelines

Design Insights for More Livable Kitchens – American Society of Interior Designers

Universal Design in Housing by Ronald L. Mace, FAIA – The Institute for Human Centered Design

Kitchen ideas pinned by our interior design team – RLPS Interiors Kitchen Board on Pinterest