How The Abbey overcame adversity to become a West Hollywood institution

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"The opportunity to have [The Abbey] more exposed to the street was not only for the weather but to allow our community to be seen," says David Cooley, who founded The Abbey in 1991. Photo courtesy of The Abbey Food & Bar.

With four bars, two dance floors, a bakery, and a restaurant spread out across 16,000 square feet, the Abbey Food and Bar is a West Hollywood juggernaut. But when David Cooley opened it in 1991, it was but a humble cafe. In a neighborhood prone to high turnover, just how has the Abbey survived for 32 years, through the height of the AIDS crisis, the COVID pandemic, and ongoing backlash against LGBTQ+ rights? We decided to ask. 

Cooley shares the story of his establishment as the subject of this week's In The Weeds. He talks about why he has spent half of his life overseeing the Abbey (and neighboring nightclub, the Chapel).

The Abbey is located at 692 N. Robertson Blvd. in West Hollywood and is open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Humble Beginnings

I started in a small town in Ohio, called Solon. After my first college year at Ashland University, I moved over to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for a degree in Hotel Administration. I decided during my last two months that I had to accept who I am. I started visiting West Hollywood, and found out that this is the destination where I wanted to live. I disappointed my parents and the dean because they had other plans of job offers, but I moved to Los Angeles, especially West Hollywood, without anything. I cleaned houses, I waited tables, I did anything to get by. But I always had a dream to open a business on my own, especially in West Hollywood. 

I started studying finance, worked with Merrill Lynch in Beverly Hills, and got all my financial degrees. Then I worked for a bank. I was with a bank for seven years and decided to start working on my dream. 

Sunday Service at The Abbey features a drag brunch hosted by Pastor Misty Violet. Photo courtesy of The Abbey Food & Bar.

The Abbey Opens… As A Cafe

The original Abbey was part of a dry cleaners, which was about 1,100 square feet. I started with an espresso machine, a wooden bar, and about four cakes. I was creative. I started using the steamer to make scrambled eggs so I could offer an egg dish in the morning. Over time, it morphed into a cafe that offered sandwiches and salads. Then it moved into a bar once we obtained the liquor license. Shortly thereafter, the first apple martini was born, and that was the spot to be seen with an apple martini in your hand. 

The first location had a small patio. It was part of a driveway that I couldn't use after 6 p.m. once the laundry room closed. It was on a very slight angle. When I got the opportunity to move across the street and have it be even more exposed, that was not only for the weather, but to allow our community to be seen, to be accepted outside rather than being pushed into a dark room with no windows. This is the first time people were actually exposed to the outside, where people driving by could see them, where no one was starting to be afraid. It's okay to be who you are. That was a big step. Some people were a little hesitant about it. When I first moved out here, I remember parking at the Safeway station and keeping my head down to run into [neighboring gay bar] Mother Lode. And now it's not like that.

The name the Abbey came about because, at first, I had a business partner. Both of us were financially struggling. He had a couple of stained glass windows in his garage, so we wanted to think of a theme. We bought some old church pews. We knew A, B would be the first in any directory, and it [only] had a few letters. I said that would definitely save us money on our signage. And the Abbey was born. 

Thanks to some old church pews and secondhand stained glass windows, David Cooley dubbed his bar The Abbey. Photo courtesy of The Abbey Food & Bar.

Activism and Community

The Abbey opened its doors in 1991. This is when "the gay cancer" was being very, very recognized and people in our community were frightened. I lost many, many friends to it. Our government was not even saying the word “AIDS.” So we, as a community, had to come strong and support ourselves. I recall going to see a friend who lived in Los Angeles in a hospital in New York, and the nurses refused to go in to take care of him. It was that tough. People were scared. 

I had a few individuals come to me and say, "Could we use your little coffee shop as a meeting point for us to make posters? And as a meeting spot where we could go out onto the streets and protest? And get people out of the bars and into the streets and let them know what is going on with our community?" We were not getting the education that we needed. No one was saying anything. So an organization called ACT UP came in. Sure enough, week after week, more people would show up. 

I remember having a car, filling it up with waters and sodas, and we'd be doing our marches. One night, we walked all the way down to the Mormon Temple, which is probably about a three-mile walk in the heavy rain, and protested in front of the temple. We walked through the Hollywood Mann Theatre. The momentum got stronger and stronger and stronger. I'm really proud of ACT UP for coming in and being a part of a grassroots organization to speak up for the lack of communication and education that the government was not supplying. 

The Sweet Smell of Success

When you open up a business, it takes a lot of work. If you're standing behind the bar, it's a lot different than when you're getting a drink. There's a lot that goes into serving that drink. I've had some employees here for 32 years. You ask some of my bartenders, [they've been here] 18 years, 19 years. We have over 200 employees, and the longevity is the staff. I don't have to worry about turnover. I have a very, very low turnover. So that really helps. 

Also, the location and especially the clientele. They appreciate that we go out, we try to make everything nice and fun and safe for them in our establishment. On my P&L reports, one of my biggest expenses is my security, because I want everyone to feel that they are safe when they enter through those gates of the Abbey. I think all those ingredients [explain] the longevity of why [we've been here] for 32 years. 

So their bartenders wouldn't be harangued by boa-wearing women wielding penis guns, the Abbey temporarily banned bachelorette parties. Photo courtesy of The Abbey Food & Bar.

Party Time

June is Pride Month. If you're coming to the Abbey, you have to think about what time you're coming in, because the Abbey does have personalities throughout the day. 

Say you're coming in on a Saturday or Sunday morning — you're coming in for a drag brunch. I'm very proud of our drag queens. We went in front of the [West Hollywood] City Council with 16 drag queens holding Tennessee flags and asking for a resolution for our drag queens to have a safe haven. So if you're coming in during the day, expect a fun drag show. 

[At night], that turns into dancers, two DJs on two different dance floors, which brings out about 50 dancers. It turns into another personality for the evening, which is all nightlife, all nightclub [with] the lights, the dancers, the great music. But you could still come in and eat. 

So you have to decide how long you're going to come in for and what time you're going to come in. Please take an Uber or a Lyft because the Abbey is known for strong drinks and 10-ounce martinis, so I'm sure you're going to have a great time.