The Abbey is the gay bar of your dreams. Part queer Disneyland and part big budget bar, the West Hollywood staple is legendary for embracing a “go big—and go homo” attitude. As the bar turns twenty five this year, we explore the importance of gay bars with owner David Cooley.
It's a hot afternoon at The Abbey. Literally: it’s ninety degrees, there are hundreds of men and women brushing against each other, and everything is sweaty. This is the kind of place that can easily overwhelm or swallow you up, as it caters every indulgent quality of yours. Many memorable days and nights have been made at The Abbey and, clearly, the present is no exception.
This feeling is typical Abbey: it is never not packed. The bar is a sprawl of spaces, composed of patios, stages, lounges, private areas, and—of course—areas to get a drink. The space recently took on a sibling as The Chapel, the latest concept from The Abbey, is opening next door. If you couldn’t get enough of the place Logo and OUT have named the “Best Gay Bar In The World,” you will now get double the queer Catholic caricature fun.
What’s funny about all this is that The Abbey is the work of one man whose vision for the space has grown and grown and grown. Owner David Cooley is the one who made it happen, creating a new mold for what a gay bar should be: part Cheers, part political platform, and part gay wonderland.
“It’s like I'm throwing a party at my home every night,” he explains. “I want to make sure when you go through gates of my front door that you're going to have the most incredible, enjoyable time, that you'll be able to come back again.”
“The Abbey is like the town hall that people come to be together for support,” he notes, mentioning how it is home to myriad events outside of the nightlife variety. “We host election nights when we have the elections. Everyone is there hoping for their candidate to win or their proposition to win that they supported. When unfortunate things happen, people like to come there...we all feel a sense of closeness and family when we're there at The Abbey.”
“And that's really very important to me,” he smiles.
Cooley grew up in Ohio and landed in Los Angeles after attending the University Of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he studied Hotel and Restaurant Management. Spaces like The Abbey are home to him as he’s always had a relationship to the food and beverage industry. “I have been working in restaurants since I was a teenage. After graduation, I had several job offers that were taking me to the East coast but I wanted to be in Los Angeles. I checked out my job offers and moved to West Hollywood and couldn't find a job or anything. Then I got involved with finance as a stockbroker. Later, I went into banking, and then I switched over, back to restaurants.”
The entree back to food and beverage was, surprisingly, where The Abbey started: in May 1991. “One of my clients had a coffee house and I noticed how well he was doing,” he explains. “I opened up my little 100 square foot coffee house with one espresso machine and pastries. Very humble beginnings, believe me. I had no money...but I still don't.”
For locals, this initial space is currently what houses Bossa Nova, across from where The Abbey is now. “That was where The Abbey started for three years,” Cooley notes.
The current space is far from the small operation that it was. Cooley had to add in a kitchen, got a beer and wine license and eventual liquor license, added multiple bathrooms, and expanded four times to become what it is now. He credits his landlord—Denny Edwards—along with the community of West Hollywood for helping the business thrive.
“At the time I expanded, I totally was a nervous wreck because I didn't think if I could fill the space up,” he says. “But they always supported us, excited to see the growth. And, again, the growth and the success of The Abbey is a couple of ingredients which are so important. You see that with the fact that some of my staff has been with me from the very beginning, since day one.”
Beyond WeHo, every gay person in Los Angeles has a connection to The Abbey. From Bryan Singer (“He used to come into the coffee shop. He used to study there.”) to his barber (“She met her wife there and now they have two kids.”), the spot is fueled by these personal connections—and they speak to the value of gay bars as community hubs for the LGBTQ community. “I love to hear those type of stories, of what The Abbey has created and brought so many people, so many lives together. That's like the biggest accomplishment that The Abbey brings me.”
Those people speak to the diversity of the space, too. Yes, it is located in a neighborhood colloquially referred to as “Boystown” but it’s more than that. As you will see juxtaposed before you by cross-referencing nights, The Abbey is always serving up a different aspect of the LGBTQ family. “If you come in on a Thursday night, we’re going to have dancers and dancing. But we also have space where you can just sit down and hang out with you friends, conversing with them and not having a crazy time...We have a transition during the day too, during the lunch time. There are nannies and there are kids who play next door at the park then it gets a little louder with happy hour and then it transitions into more of the nightclub at the evening.”
“The Abbey is succeeding because, from the very beginning, I made sure that everyone was always accepted: straight, gay, transgender—whatever you are, whoever you are, anyone coming out has been my VIP. Other bars have certain, specific, clientele and those gay bars are closing more and more and it's sad to see. If you specialized in a club that’s for Latinos or for black men or for leather men or for lesbian—if you really are targeting a community—you see why so many of these bars are closing. We can name off a dozen in LA that have closed their doors in the past few years. I think our Wednesday night—Girl Bar—is the only lesbian bar in town now.”
He’s correct. Palms was a West Hollywood staple for over fifty years but closed in 2013 to make way for new retail and residential spaces. Even the adjacent Here Lounge, which catered to a mostly lesbian audience, closed in early 2016 and is the future space of The Chapel. There seems to be a drought in this area, which The Abbey is happy to fill.
While there might be an urban blight of niche gay bars, Cooley reminds that cities are exceptions, that much of America does not accept the LGBTQ community. “We're very fortunate to be where we are right now in California, in Los Angeles, in West Hollywood where gay marriage is very acceptable,” he explains. “That's not the case across the country even though it's accepted federally. You still see many states—Indiana, North Carolina, etc.—that are trying to do everything to discriminate and make its people discriminate, which is just awful. It's awful.”
“We can't take for granted that there still is a long, huge battle ahead of us. We can't just sit back and say, ‘We're done!’”
Cooley isn’t worried about the future though: he has faith that the LGBTQ community will grow and diversify and physical space will reflect this, as typically LGBTQ only spaces are being redefined. “Where so many other gay bars are closing, I've taken a chance in opening up another place right next door...people still want to come out and socialize, even though social media is so much a part of everyone’s day and life now. You may meet someone online for a date or a hookup—but people still need a place to be together, with friends.”
“It makes me very happy when I look across The Abbey and see people in their twenties to the guy who is in his high eighties, who comes in to dance on Saturday nights. I see men and women, straight and gay, and transgender: it's a great melting pot. I love seeing that.”
“And when some of my older clientele say, ‘Gosh, The Abbey's become straight!’ my argument is, It's not straight: it's a gay bar where everyone is welcomed.’ We've fought so much in our community, for equal rights: I love it that, even if you're straight, you're still welcomed in our community. That's how we want them to accept us as well.”
Outside of expanding to The Chapel, Cooley is hoping to stretch further into West Hollywood and, maybe, even out to Palm Springs. As big as The Abbey is now, as bustling as it might always seem, Cooley never saw it becoming what it is now.
“I had no idea,” he says. “I had a dream. When I went to those bars in West Hollywood, I said, ‘God, my dream is to have a bar here, where it's not behind closed doors, that it can be open, so we can enjoy this weather that we have here, and to be accepted and to not be hidden behind closed doors.’”
“I love that aspect,” he says. “That we're outdoors, open, and proud of who we are.”“Every time I expand, I always say—and I still say this, every night I leave—‘All I ask is that people come back tomorrow.’ I'm always worried. ‘Are they going to come back?’...I'm so grateful that people are coming back, day after day, night after night. So, I thank everyone.”