Celebrated chef Elaina Vazquez has trained at a few of the most notable Michelin-starred restaurants in the country, like TRU, Avenues at the Peninsula Hotel Chicago, and the world-renowned Joël Robuchon at The Mansion at MGM Grand in Las Vegas. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Vazquez says her love for cooking originally stems from her Puerto Rican heritage.
“Food is a huge part of my culture, and I loved growing up surrounded by lots of people eating really good food,” she explains. “I spent a ton of time at my grandmother’s house, and she was an excellent cook. Since I was five-years-old, I knew I wanted to be a chef one day.”
Having earned her chops at the highest level under famed chefs and hospitality concepts—and having grown tired of the fast-paced restaurant life in Sin City—Vazquez had an idea to translate the beautiful food, attention to detail, and highest standards of quality to catered events.
She picked up a few odd party jobs from her one-bedroom apartment in Vegas as a side hustle but ultimately decided to move home to Chicago to launch Boutique Bites, a creative and custom catering and events company specializing in the mix of stylish food and exceptional presentation, in 2008. The idea? To bring restaurant-style food to catered parties.
“I should have been nervous, but I wasn’t,” says Vazquez of the 2008 Great Recession. “I wanted to create something of my own and knew it was time after reaching the pinnacle with Joël Robuchon. I had zero expectations and had nothing to lose.”
Starting small with a team of one for the first year, the concept soon took off and, in 2014, Vazquez expanded to a West Loop headquarters with a 4,000-square-foot commercial kitchen and a private event venue, BRIQUE.
She slowly built a dedicated clientele on the North Shore who appreciated the pairing of Vazquez’s background in fine dining with her appreciation for casual entertaining. So, when the lease on her West Loop space came up in 2019, Vazquez decided to switch things up once again.
“Boutique Bites clients were always telling us they wanted a place to stop and grab dinner on the way home, and our casual food menu of simple things done well really took off in recent years,” says Vazquez. “I wanted to build a place where I’d want to eat every day. That’s how I approach things, in terms of what I like and what I feel is missing.”
That became the inspiration for what is now Towne & Oak in Winnetka, a 10,000-square-foot café and private event space in the Hubbard Woods business district that is celebrating its first anniversary with a menu of easy and delicious grab-and-go items along with made-to-order favorites like salads, tartines, and more.
Vazquez gut-renovated the former antique emporium—an eight-month process—and centered the Napa Valley meets Nantucket design aesthetic around the two living trees, standout skylight, and exposed beams that already existed in the space. Her goal was to preserve as much of the existing elements as possible with minor enhancements.
“We started building in February 2020 and then COVID-19 hit. But we made the most of it, and I’m really proud to be a female, minority-owned business that opened during a pandemic. It takes a lot of guts to do what we did and here we are thriving one year later,” explains Vazquez. Vazquez wanted to end up somewhere that felt like a true community and says she’s found that in Winnetka. With Towne & Oak, she aimed to create a gathering place that provides the feeling of being away from it all, right in your own town.
“I feel like we had good foresight to move to the suburbs when we did,” says Vazquez. “There is such a community here that loves to shop local. At least once a day someone thanks us for opening in Winnetka.”
Fans love the handcrafted breakfast sandwiches complete with over-easy eggs, cheddar, maple glazed bacon, herb aioli, and homemade biscuits and miso-glazed salmon bowls full of salmon, pearl couscous, togarashi charred broccoli, roasted sweet potato, snap peas, and a miso glaze.
“We make our biscuits from scratch and since we started selling them as a separate side, they fly out the door,” laughs Vazquez. “I joke that we should shut down operations and just do biscuits. They’re a hot commodity.”
Because of that, Towne & Oak offers gift baskets with boxes of the biscuits, like one for brunch with added strawberry preserves, butter, champagne, and orange juice for $55. And thanks to the event space and Boutique Bites catering arm, Vazquez is hopeful about a busy event season this spring and summer.
“Really, though, it is still a shock to me when I walk in,” says Vazquez. “It is all so surreal and crazy that it actually happened after I thought about it for so long. I am so thankful.”
And so are we!
Towne & Oak is located at 921 Green Bay Road in Winnetka. For more information, call 224-505-5384 or visit towneandoak.com.