On any given day or night, the gregarious al fresco flurry of West Hollywood’s famed Abbey Food & Bar patio is bumping with dance beats and pumping with conversation and consumption. For 26 years and counting, David Cooley’s Robertson Boulevard establishment has reigned as West Hollywood’s best known gay hub, a space that’s been “out” both literally and figuratively, thanks to its inviting, partially outdoor set up.
Now the Abbey is about get a new kind of exposure that promises mainstream recognition for the venue, the community and establishment’s owner starting this Sunday, when E! premieres What Happens at the Abbey, a reality show chronicling the lives of Cooley and his staff and patrons. All involved hope viewers are as religious about tuning in as regulars are about coming in.
An abbey is a kind of monastery, a home for monks and nuns that's often open to visitors, too. Cooley says his original location across the street had stained glass windows and that influenced the name — but it also made sense because he intended his business to be both a safe haven for the gay community and an “inclusive place where everybody is welcome, too.”
It’s a breezy Friday afternoon in West Hollywood and Cooley is taking a break from his busy day filled with managerial meetings and PR for the TV show. Later, he’ll be hanging out with the staff, many of whom will be seen on the program. Cooley helps waiters bus tables, chats with guests, and generally makes the rounds as the hands-on owner he’s always been, an approach that TV stardom seems unlikely to change.
Though Cooley gave up half of the Abbey in a much-touted partnership with the SBE Nightlife Group nine years ago, he bought it all back last July. The partnership didn’t change much (SBE were in charge mostly of back-of-the-house business stuff) but ever since he took it all back, the place does feel more homey. Cooley has always been a very welcoming and inclusive proprietor.
“I always listen to the people and I always had a philosophy that was ‘no velvet ropes,” he explains. “It’s a gay bar. I love that it’s mostly outside and open. It’s Southern California. So many other gay bars were behind closed doors in WeHo. I wanted to be open and be proud of who we were.”
Originally from Ohio, Cooley went to college in Las Vegas, where he got his degree in hotel administration. He moved to L.A. in his early 20s and worked in finance, then got a job in banking at Wells Fargo. One of his bank clients owned the Living Room on La Brea, one of L.A.’s coolest original coffeehouses. Taking note of its success and the growing caffeine trend happening in L.A. in the early '90s, Cooley decided to open his own spot.
The Abbey took off immediately, so when Cooley's landlord asked him to move across the street into part of what is now the current space (it was a pottery and statue store previously), he took it. The Abbey has grown ever since, from café to restaurant to bar to nightclub, with five expansions over the last 25 years.
Last year Cooley opened a whole new club right next door, called the Chapel, which features DJs and dancing, and has organically attracted more specifically gay crowds depending on the promo. Cooley stresses all his venues are welcoming to all (which, as a straight woman who loves gay clubs, has always been appealing to me). Still, some in the gay community haven’t always been so open about their scenes getting infiltrated by straights — and who can blame them when the obnoxious "bachelorette party” crowd come out, seemingly more concerned with grinding on hunky go-go boys for a night of novelty, than celebrating unity or opening up their minds to a different nightlife culture.
“We as community have fought so long to be treated as equal," Cooley says passionately, when asked about the Abbey's more inclusive mix of patrons. "We have marched and we have protested, and we’ve had have fundraisers, so we can be equal. And we are. At least with our past administration, for the first time I felt like an equal. So when some of my clientele say the Abbey has become too straight, I basically ask them to remember how it was, and to see that looking at it that way, is kind of reverse discrimination. We all want to be treated equally wherever we go. The Abbey is a place where everyone is welcome.
“So many gay bars have closed because they catered only to certain clientele,” he continues. “I use go-go boys and girls. We welcome straight, bi, gay, lesbian, transgendered, everyone. This is a relaxed, safe place.”
Cooley didn’t come out until his last year of college and he says his reasons for moving to L.A., which was a struggle financially at first, had a lot to do with the openness to different lifestyles here. “When you’re coming out, your first experience is going to be a gay bar,” he says. “This is a comfortable one to do that in. I’m on the sidewalk out there a lot, talking with people in line, and I can spot a person coming out for the first time. They feel good here. I get people thanking me, too; this is the first gay place they can bring their parents to. That makes me really proud. “
Though the Abbey is a great place to take mom and dad during the day (I recommend their “Drag Brunch” every Sunday, with bottomless mimosas and live performances), after dark it’s still a high-energy club, too. The giant LCD light display they brought in a few years ago and bustling DJ nights (resident Donna Montell has been pleasing crowds at the club for 15 years now) turn the main dance room into a rager every night.
As for What Happens at the Abbey, on which Cooley serves as an executive producer, he says the show delves into the personal lives of the staff (yes, there will be drama!) while his role will be more business oriented. He is currently looking for a second location for the Abbey brand, and the program will follow his progress throughout that process.
As if starring in and producing a TV show and running the Abbey and adjoining Chapel wasn’t enough, Cooley is also involved in two new ventures. Abbey Air via JetSuiteX, a company chartering private planes to Palm Springs, just took its first flight during the famed White Party events of last weekend there. And he’s partnered with downtown's Bottega Louie on a second location in West Hollywood, due to open at the end of this year.
When we chatted Friday, Cooley was putting finishing touches on an event he says is one of the most important he’s ever thrown: the anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Florida. Cooley’s hosted many famous people, actors and musicians — even Elizabeth Taylor was a regular — but he says that no one made an impression on him the way the owner of Pulse did when she recently visited.
“She brought some of the survivors and it’s the first time they were in a club” since the shooting, he says. “These people’s survival stories … I’ll never forget them. With the current administration and focus on our rights being taken away, I just didn’t want the worst massacre in U.S. history to be overshadowed.”
On June 5, both his venues will host a sit-down dinner, with dancing and drag show benefiting the victims, with many survivors in attendance. And just a couple days later, L.A. Pride will take over West Hollywood, this year as a #resistance protest march (rather than the usual parade) down Santa Monica Boulevard in reaction to the current administration’s discriminatory policies.
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“I’m concerned and scared. There’s gonna be some changes,” Cooley says of the current threats to gay rights. “More than ever our community has to show our strength, and we have to support each other and stick together.” No matter the political climate, and regardless of whether What Happens at the Abbey is a hit or not, Cooley is determined to keep the Abbey a place to do just that. It will be the sanctuary it was always meant to be, no matter what the future holds.
What Happens at the Abbey premieres Sunday, May 14 at 10 p.m. on E!
Los Angeles native Lina Lecaro has been covering L.A. nightlife since she started as a teen intern at L.A. Weekly (fake ID in tow) nearly two decades ago. She went on to write her own column, "Nightranger," for the print edition of the Weekly for six years. Read her "Lina in L.A." interviews for the latest nightlife news, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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