I'm often asked by clients which material makes the best countertop. It reminds me of the old axiom about which is the best exercise. The answer to both is the one that best suits you. It's pretty obvious that visual taste is a huge influence. But there's also cost, maintenance and wear issues to consider. For purposes of this entry I'll stick to kitchen counter materials I'd recommend.
My favorite counter material for a kitchen is natural stone. I tend to specify very dense stones like quartzite or granite. These materials take a beating and require virtually no maintenance. You can cut on it (although not great for the knife edge longevity), you can put boiling hot pots onto it. In short, about the only damage you can inflict onto a stone surface is dropping something very heavy onto it and possibly chipping the surface or an edge. Below is a kitchen we did using a white quartzite material.For a while, marble and limestone were in vogue for counter tops, but both materials require a good deal of maintenance involving constant sealing to keep their appearance pristine. Both materials will have their surface marred if acidic materials come in contact (such as lime or lemon juice, tomatoes, wine). The more porous the material, like limestone, the more chance there is to stain deep into the material. However, if you're not the type that has to have the perfect appearance at all times, I actually like using marble and NOT sealing it - letting nature run its course. Below is a photo taken at a local fish deli, Barney Greengrass, of their marble countertop that's been there for almost 100 years; it has a great patina of wear. I think it looks fabulous.
If money is no object and you like color, then glazed lava stone (Pyrolave) is the perfect material. The finished surface has the appearance glazed tile. They can produce almost any color. Like quartzite, it's impervious to most normal wear - but again, it can be chipped if something heavy is dropped onto it.
These are my favorite stone materials. New stone materials constantly come to market as the older quarries run out of material. Right now we find more quartzites coming to market, and far less granites (which seem out of fashion) and marbles. I'll touch on metals for counter tops, as well as use of wood in my next entry.