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Saturday, June 14, 2003

The Handyman

Flex your outdoor patio muscles with grills and accessories

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Quick, what do the following names have in common? Alfresco, Aussie, Avanti, Bodum, Bubba's, Dacor, Ducane, Dynasty, Flat Rock, George Foreman, GE Monogram, Kitchen Aid, Krups, Lodge, New Braunfels, Solaire, Sunbeam, Sur La Table, T-Fal, Thermador, UniFlame, Vermont Castings, Vieluxe, Viking, Weber and Wolf.

If you guessed that they were all different brands of barbecues, go to the head of the class. If you guessed anything else, you are probably as confused as me. With prices ranging from $49.99 for the Aussie Walk-A-Bout Charcoal Grill at Meijer to $11,000-plus for the big Solaire (with built-in refrigerator) at American Fireplace and Barbecue, (248) 547-6777, how can you be anything but confused?

Any one of them can be used to burn a hot dog, and a really good outdoor cook can make a gourmet meal on even the cheapest equipment. So what is the difference and how much should you allocate for a "good grill"? And what does it take to flex your muscles and show all the other guys, "you've got the biggest barbecue on the block."

Two obvious answers: Quality costs, and something that is built to last is never flimsy. Price is also determined by the technology used. Purists still use charcoal. Most people settle for standard burner technology, now called "convection" on pricier grills. High-tech types demand infrared (much faster and more control).

You can tell the quality of a grill by lifting the hood. If it lifts solid, like a high-priced car door, the grill was meant to last. If it lifts light, it may well warp from the heat of cooking and weather rapidly.

Cheap is never a good idea. When you are literally playing with fire, you want something solid. Also, let's face it, when you buy something for your back yard that will be used for entertaining, you want to make a statement.

The trend is to bigger, heavier grills. Just like their kitchen counterparts, stainless steel is the exterior of choice. Solid, functional barbecues start around $500. High-priced grills start at about $3,000. Sad to say, even $3,000 won't make a statement. A barbecue in the back yard is no longer enough to impress anyone. Now you have to have an outdoor room.

To make a big impression, you need more than a deck, barbecue and patio furniture. You need at least a wall of cabinets anchored to an extended potting shed, a wet bar, warming ovens, wok, refrigerator, fireplace or fire pit and an Italian, wood-fired, bread or pizza oven. To prove you are one of the boys, you need a $2,300 stainless steel Viking beer tapper. Thanks in large part to California-based trends, certified kitchen designers are getting into the act. At the last Kitchen and Bath Show in Orlando, they had a seminar on outdoor room design that was attended by about 600 people.

It also would be nice to have at least one large fountain or waterfall and a couple of life-size statues from a place like the Rock Shoppe, (734) 455-5560.

You can find most of the basic ingredients at specialty stores such as American Fireplace and Barbecue in Ferndale, (248) 547-6777, and Evergreen in Clinton Township,(586) 791-2277, and Eastpointe, (586) 778-7400.

Steve Brown of American Fireplace says that he has the largest selection of barbecues in Michigan. The selection includes 15 grills in the $3,000-$11,000 range and all of the major infrared grills.

Bob Wilk, the General Manager of Evergreen, says since the stores he manages are garden, fireplace and barbecue centers, they offer almost everything needed to equip an outdoor room. That includes a huge selection of convection and infrared grills, both indoor and outdoor fireplaces, outdoor refrigerators and coolers, patio sets, gazebos, fountains and statuary, as well as a complete selection of plants.

By the way, if you don't know the difference between an outdoor refrigerator and a cooler, the refrigerator looks like the mini-fridge your kid has in his dorm room but costs between $1,300 and $2,000. The cooler looks like a barrel on casters and costs about $400. Although meant for outdoor use, you will be better off if you put both of them in the garage during winter.

Not everyone (including myself) wants to shell out all of that money. The Great Indoors has a very impressive 6-burner Kenmore Elite for about $1,500. If you cook with charcoal, the timpani-sized Weber Ranch Kettle at Evergreen makes a heck of a statement for only $800.

I've written about the most expensive grills and outdoor room accessories so that you have sticker shock while you are at home before you go barbecue shopping. Expect to pay at least $500 for a barbecue that will last, $1,500 for a sturdy barbecue that will put out a lot of BTUs and $3,000 for one of the big babies that folks will talk about.

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