The Right Height for a Kitchen Island Countertop/Breakfast Bar

Homeowners spend a lot of time picking out cabinets, countertops, backsplashes, appliances, and lighting for their kitchens, but sometimes, not enough time thinking through basic functions. A frequent example of that is the height of a raised countertop on a kitchen island, sometimes also called a breakfast bar.

Open floor plans expose the whole kitchen to view – cooking mess and all. A raised countertop can help hide the mess behind a short wall, and makes a nice place to sit and eat, drink, and socialize.

That’s the basic function of a breakfast bar, but there’s more to getting the design right than just hiding the mess. Choosing the right finishes will make it look good, but we want it to work right, too. Here’s what you need to know to get the height right.

Chairs or Stools?

Ideally, you should have about 12 inches between a seat and a bartop. Regular kitchen chairs are typically 18 inches from the floor, making the ideal bar height 30 inches. That’s lower than the standard kitchen countertop height of 36 inches – you’ll need to design a “dropped” bar top in this situation.

A larger kitchen might allow room for two islands – one for cooking, and another that takes the place of a kitchen table

When my clients want to use their regular kitchen chairs at dropped bar, I often recommend we forgo the kitchen table entirely, and instead attached a table-sized slab of countertop material to the kitchen island – freeing up some space in the kitchen where a table would have been.

The “counter height” stools at this island fit under an extended top – perfect for eating and for cooking

“Counter height” stools are about 24 inches high, and fit under the standard 36” countertop. You don’t have to raise or lower that part of the countertop, so you get a much larger uninterrupted work area and cleaner design lines in the kitchen. Some people however, find the 24” seat height awkward.

From the family room side, this raised top hides the “stuff” on the kitchen counter…

…and here’s the same peninsula from the kitchen side.

Bar stools take the seat up to around 30”, just right for a 42” top height. 30” stools are the right height for easily sliding in or out without “stepping up” or “sitting down”. That bar height is 6 inches above the countertop so it’s very good for hiding cooking and cleaning. It also makes a place for a decorative backsplash and provides room for outlets and switches.

Finally, 40” high stools will give you the authentic belly-up-to-the-bar effect. Shorter folks will have to climb on to a 40” stool, and only the tallest of us will find our feet touching the floor when we’re sitting on one. You won’t often see these at kitchen bars; they’re better off at a “drinking” bar only.

The one concern about taller bar stools is that they can be a fall hazard for small children. If you have kids and want raised bar top, you’ll want a nearby kitchen table they can use until they’re big enough to safely use the stools.

Cooking or Cleaning?

Setting up a cooking station at an island is great for socializing – you and your guests can be face-to-face while you’re stirring the sauce on the cooktop, or chopping celery. And for two cooks, a flush island countertop is perfect for sharing the work.

An island with everything – a 42″ raised top, a sink, dishwasher, and cooktop. Note the tile backsplash with switches and outlets.

But putting a cooktop on a flush-top island creates a safety hazard when there are children around – little hands can too easily reach up and over the back of a 36” high countertop. That’s a very good reason to raise the wall behind the island, or to extend the countertop out far enough from the back of the cooktop to prevent accidents.

Or you could move the sink and dishwasher to the island, but that means the dirty dishes are going to pile up right where everyone can see them.

A big flush top with no appliances – plenty of room for work and socializing. Chairs have 24″ high seats.

My recommendations? I like the clean look of a flush top, extended out far enough for safety – and counter-height stools for your guests. Second choice? A 42” high raised breakfast bar – high enough to stand at, low enough to sit at, and that hides the mess.

Need expert Residential Architectural advice for your new home or remodeling project? Contact Richard Taylor, AIA at Richard Taylor Architects.

  • Daniel Turner Builders Inc

    Thanks Rich!! Along with the working dimensions and rationales….I truly enjoy the detail and forethought in your after-built photos. The single tile width reveal on the 2nd photo above your signature line speaks volumes!!

    10/27/2017 at 6:38 am
  • In my current kitchen I have a 10″ deep sink, and the counter height is 34″. I find my back hurting a bit (I’m 6’2) when doing dishes and besides getting a shallower sink, is it odd to have a taller island vs the rest of the cabinets? Designing new house and thinking of raising the island a couple inches taller than the other counter surfaces…

    10/27/2017 at 12:38 pm

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