My City

Isabel Coss, one of DC’s Buzziest Chefs, Reveals the City’s Best-Kept Secrets—From Late-Night Wine Bars to the Best Crispy Pig Ears in Town

Isabel Coss photographed in front of Julia Child's home in Washington, DC. All clothing by J.Crew.

Isabel Coss’s first ambition was to be a ballerina. Instead, she became one of the best new pastry chefs on the northeastern seaboard. “I needed something that required discipline, was visual, and allowed me to transform things,” she explains. “I found all those qualities in cooking—the pace of kitchens, the freedom of manipulating ingredients, and the beauty and happiness desserts can inspire.”

After turns at Manhattan hotspots Empellón and Cosme, the Lutèce pastry chef—or postre chef, as she calls herself in Spanish—left New York for DC with her partner in life and work, Michelin-starred chef Matt Conroy. The two first locked eyes, as many in the culinary world are wont to do, across a bustling restaurant kitchen. “I would watch him cook from my pastry station. We fell in love,” Coss recalls, as she walks the streets of DC—one of the first stops on J. Crew's Local Time Tour. The pair, who together helm Lutèce, recently added another restaurant to the family. Pascual, their latest enterprise in Capital Hill, pays homage to Coss’s early days baking bread in the famed kitchens at Pujol—the iconic establishment in her native Mexico City

Isabel wears sweater and jeans by J.Crew, and shoes are model’s own.

To a Mexico City transplant with years in New York under her belt, DC might feel a bit sleepy by comparison. In fact, the chef sees many travelers move through her restaurants expecting little from our nation’s capital beyond the routine machinations of government. But to Coss, a smaller arts scene makes for a deeper sense of connection: “There are so many local artists and creatives doing incredible work here,” she argues, “and that needs to be celebrated as well.” To prove her point, Coss reveals her guide to her adopted city’s lesser-known delights—from late-night wine bars to the best caramel ice cream in town, and a stunning kayaking route on the Potomac—with help from J. Crew ahead of the brand's Local Time Tour.

What’s your favorite underrated Saturday afternoon activity in DC?

In the summer, kayak on the Potomac or picnic by the water. In the winter, have a solo dining experience. Sit at a restaurant bar, order yourself a nice glass of wine or a cocktail, and enjoy a date with yourself.

What should one do, wear, or say to seem like a local? 

I have lived in Mexico City, New York, and now DC The best way to become a local is to get something that belonged to a local before. First, find something at a cool vintage shop. Now wear it, shape it, and make it yours! Give it new life while reinventing yourself in the meantime. Second, find a coffee shop—I recommend La Colada—and make a friend.

Name a dish from a local restaurant you would die for.

The salted caramel ice cream at The Creamery at Union Market. I have a pint at home always!

Where do you go to escape the crowds?

I go to the U.S National Arboretum. They have an incredible collection of culinary plants: fresh cacao from Tabasco, vanilla from Veracruz, hoja santa from Oaxaca, citrus and canela trees. That place always inspires me.

What is your favorite restaurant to visit without having to beg for a reservation? 

The bar at Bar Spero for seafood and desserts, or Queen’s English for a big bowl of crispy pig ears.

What’s the best neighborhood for visitors to stay in?  

I love Georgetown—it’s so walkable. I fell in love with this city while biking through Georgetown in the spring. Everything is covered in blossoming trees. For hotels, you can't go wrong with The Ritz or The Rosewood, but there are also places like The Poppy, a charming townhouse-turned-hotel that will make you feel like a Georgtowner.

Best place for a late-night drink?

On Tuesday nights after 8 p.m., Izakaya Seki turns into a wine bar. Go, go, go. The quality of bottles that Cizuka and Amanda, the women behind the wine bar, have available is like nothing you’d ever find in a common wine shop.

Your ideal art-viewing itinerary?

The National Mall has it all. Walk through the Smithsonian. My favorite stop is the seasonal exhibits at the Hirshhorn or the National Museum of the American Indian.

What is the best place to shop for gifts? Or for yourself?

The city’s green markets always have flower stands from local farms. Get yourself a bouquet. I also love the Phoenix in Georgetown. I always find an amazing mix of jewelry, ceramics, and art.

Who hosts the best dinner party in town?

Lutèce! Especially on Monday nights. The dining room is full of restaurant industry people, the tables are full of bottles of wine, the music is a little louder, and the food is just delicious.

J.Crew is hosting store events in four cities across the country along with their Creative Directors Olympia Gayot and Brendon Babenzien. Find out more here. For insider tips on how to navigate cities around the globe, check out David Castillo's guide to Miami, Gisela Capitain's tour of Cologne, and Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel's advice for visiting Paris