Anytime there's a milestone event concerning L.A.'s gay community — Proposition 8, the Supreme Court affirming the right of same sex couples to marry — you can count on a crowd (along with news trucks and cameras) converging on The Abbey Food & Bar. That's partly by design; owner David Cooley is a savvy businessman. That's also partly due to history. After nearly three decades years in business — an achievement in any industry but a unicorn-level rarity in the dining and nightlife scene — The Abbey is more than a dance club or restaurant. It's a community center, albeit one with sexy, barely clad dancers and 10-ounce apple martinis.
When David Cooley decided to open The Abbey in 1991, the bar scene in West Hollywood looked much different than it does now. Cooley, an Ohioan by way of Las Vegas, moved to the city in 1981, at the start of the AIDS crisis. "When I was coming to bars on Santa Monica Boulevard, it was not as open," he says. "There were no front patios where you could have a cigarette. It was all behind closed doors and through back alleys."
Inspired by his friend Robert Kass, who owned The Living Room, an early (some say the earliest) café in Los Angeles, Cooley, who was working at a bank, decided to open his own coffeehouse. He had two goals: "I really wanted to cater to the gay community. I knew I wanted it to be outside."
He found a spot in the heart of Boys Town, a 1,100 square-foot former dry cleaners located off the main drag. At the time, there wasn't much on Robertson Boulevard besides designer showrooms. His friends thought it was a terrible location. Cooley ignored them. "I thought it was a great location," Cooley says, "and now Robertson is a great address with a lot of visibility." It would be the first of many smart decisions.
He had access to stained glass windows, so he decorated the joint like a church, christening it The Abbey. "I didn't have much money for signage and 'The Abbey' didn't have many letters in it," Cooley says. Although he had never had a cup of coffee (still hasn't), Cooley bought an espresso machine and began slinging java. "This was an old school coffeehouse, before Starbucks or any corporate coffeehouse. People would come with their books to study and play checkers and chess." With its open patio and friendly vibe, The Abbey was an antidote to bars with tinted windows.
It proved popular enough that he soon moved across the street, into The Abbey's current location. Over the years he has expanded five times, acquiring a beer and wine license in 1994 and a liquor license in 1996. What started out as a humble coffeeshop has grown into a 16,000-square-foot venue with multiple rooms, four bars and a full menu.
How has the ecclesiastically-themed venue managed to keep growing when so many other gay bars have closed? "I had to keep a step ahead of coming trends," Cooley says. "When I opened there was no such thing as Starbucks. Now, there are two right across the corner. That also applies to so many gay bars that are closing. They cater to a certain clientele. If you want pretty gay boys, you go to this bar. If you want leathermen, you go to this bar. If you're a lesbian, you go to this bar. My philosophy from day one has been that everyone is welcome." The weekly calendar includes Brunch Service on Saturdays, All That '90s on Tuesdays, Ash WeHo, Kink Thursdays and Sinful Fridays.
In 2007, Cooley sold The Abbey to nightlife concern SBE. Regulars complained that the joint soon became too Hollywood, with security guards in slick suits and a focus on bottle service. In 2015, Cooley bought back his baby. To celebrate the return to its original ownership, Cooley oversaw an update of The Abbey's cocktail program that featured fresh ingredients, "LGB-Tiki" drinks and menu expansion that included whiskey and gin.
On a typical weekday at The Abbey, you'll see parents with baby strollers coming from the park next door and guys in tank tops after a workout. That segues into the lunch crowd, which eventually becomes the happy hour and dinner crowd. Around 9 p.m., the dancers — both guys and girls — come out.
"It evolves throughout the day from something very mellow into something very high-energy," Cooley says. But the most popular day remains Sunday Funday, when locals start showing up for brunch. By mid-afternoon there's a line snaking down the block that'd make you think it's on Saturday night.
Sometimes, a celebrity pops in. Maybe Elizabeth Taylor, making her last public appearance. Or Lady Gaga releasing her single "Applause." For years, The Abbey has hosted a popular Oscars shindig, which grew out of a party Cooley threw in his living room and has raised a hefty chunk of change for AIDS Project Los Angeles.
Cooley, who describes himself as a hands-on owner, says that if he is in Los Angeles, he's at The Abbey every day. And he's always working: "Walking around, if I see a good looking guy with his shirt off, I say, "You have a fantastic body. Would you like to dance and make some money?' It's a great line for me because I am a shy person once I leave the gates of The Abbey."
The venue remains as popular as ever. In the fall of 2016, Cooley opened a 5,500-square foot bar next door to The Abbey called The Chapel, featuring two rooms, plenty of patio space and a "more loungey" vibe. Cooley and his staff starred in a reality TV show that was shot on location, What Happens At The Abbey, that first aired on E! in 2017.
During the annual LA PRIDE, Cooley plays to his largest congregation. He wouldn't have it any other way. "I feel so blessed," he says. "So many people dread going to work every day. I look forward to it. I couldn't think of doing anything else."