When talking about the “World-Famous” Abbey, it is hard to imagine it as a 1,100 square foot coffee shop, across the street from its current location and run by an ex-banker with a dream, but that was exactly the scene 30 years ago when owner David Cooley first opened the doors. Also, hard to imagine is a West Hollywood where most of the bars did not have a patio, the entrances were in the back, and Sunday Funday was not yet a thing. The Abbey changed that landscape, literally bringing the community out into the open and putting West Hollywood on a global map, a homing beacon for the LGBTQ community. Historical occasions, celebrities from the LGBTQ community and beyond, and future Vice Presidents have all been celebrated at The Abbey. While the brick and mortar have changed over the last thirty years, it remains a safe haven for the community, and the desserts are still damn good.
The success of The Abbey is literally from the blood, sweat, and tears of Dave Cooley. The successful entrepreneur that we see today was Ohio-born, and hard work was truly a family trait.
I was a hardworking kid. Both my parents were schoolteachers, and my dad always had a second job either working as an accountant in an amusement park or as a waiter. I believe around 10 years old, I started working at the amusement park and I would blow up balloons where you throw the darts and break them and win stuffed animals. I always had two or three jobs after school.
It was a gay bar that would serve as the impetus for Dave’s late coming out and would be a glimpse into the future of The Abbey.
I attended my last three years of college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the gay bar happened to be right across the campus. It took me about two hours or more of driving around to get the nerve for me to walk into the bar. That was my first really coming out. I still use that in my mind because, to this day, I notice so many people who are on the sidewalks trying to come into the Abbey. I appreciate that they look to The Abbey for their coming out.
Dave’s journey to Los Angeles from Las Vegas was not a glamourous one.
Upon graduation, I had my truck, my U-Haul packed, turned down all my job offers from the hotel firms (I graduated with a hotel administration program), and moved out. I slowly got involved in financing, became a stockbroker, and then started making coffee and cake for a living. After opening our doors in 1991, we were first approached by a group called Act Up to come in and have meetings. This was the start of our activism and becoming the meeting place for people before marches, parades, and the like. Besides having The Abbey known as a bar, a restaurant, bakery, or a nightclub, now it is a town hall. When we had the earthquakes, or during this COVID pandemic or the riots, it seems like people like to come and feel a togetherness at The Abbey.
Younger generations that flock to The Abbey don’t realize the history that was made there, during such a tragic time for our community. Dave’s message to them is clear:
Know your history and do not forget it. A lot of generations before you have worked, struggled, protested, demonstrated, marched, and died. Just don’t forget that the older generations have gotten you to this point where you can be so comfortable. And even before me, there were generations. I have the honor of meeting couples who have been together for 50 years plus, and I can only imagine the secrets that they had to keep for of fear of discrimination.
What is it about The Abbey that has made it such a cornerstone of the community?
That’s easy. It’s my clientele and my employees – and the city of West Hollywood. The city has always been known to be a safe haven. When I decided to start The Abbey, I took a little part of a dry cleaner for my first three years before I moved over to the current space where I have expanded five times now. That little coffee shop at 1,100 square feet has grown to 12,500, with The Chapel extension adding another 5,500 square feet, and Abbey Road another 1,200 square feet.
From coffee and cakes to DJs and dance floors, The Abbey has changed. How has owning The Abbey affected Dave the most?
The stress has made me lose my eyebrows and some hair. [Laughs] I am still very hands-on. I have the great benefit of having many of my employees with me for 20 years, 25 years, even 30 years as we celebrate, our 30th anniversary.
Memories, photos, blackouts, red carpets, and even Elizabeth Taylor make up the history of The Abbey. What sticks out to Dave most?
The parties, events, and the fundraisers. We have had some great fundraisers for Stonewall, Pulse Nightclub, and others, and we have raised a lot of money. Those are great moments. I love to host and throw parties. I thought I was going to semi-retire this coming year, but if we have the Roaring Twenties I am going to be hosting and having some great parties!
There are naysayers who argue that The Abbey has become too straight and mainstream. Dave has a message for them:
That is what we’ve been fighting for, right? That is what we’ve been fighting for our entire lives – to be accepted whether they’re straight or gay. If I would go into a straight restaurant and be looked at unwelcomed because I’m gay, I would have an issue with that. So, our hard work of those marches and those protesting to make sure that we are all equal is why I love what The Abbey is.
The biggest challenge for Dave over the last 30 years manifested itself this last year. The Abbey, like many gay venues in West Hollywood, was a victim of COVID and the uncertainty that it would bring. Dave had never experienced a more difficult time for The Abbey.
In other times, we were there as a community to be supportive and to be with each other. This past year we have opened and closed four different times, sometimes with only hours of notice. I really have to say that twice this past year when I wasn’t too sure we would make it to our 30th anniversary, but we are going to do it. This has just been the most challenging year, just like for everyone else. I am proud to say that none of our employees missed a car payment, a house payment, a utility bill. We all came together, and we are making it.
And, of course, there was that ill-fated reality TV show on E! titled What Happens at The Abbey.
The worst thing I ever did in my life. It did not represent our brand at all. No more reality shows!
Indeed, Dave is not about the drama. Politics and gossip can be waged among the bars and club promoters, with social media jumping in to stir the pot. How does Dave rise above it?
I don’t rise above it. I worry about my business and how I operate my business. When any other business is coming into West Hollywood, I’m fully supportive. I’ll speak at the council meeting to support it, I’ll be there at the opening, I’ll send flowers. The more nightlife in our area, the better we all succeed.
With a drink list that reads longer than a CVS receipt, what is Dave’s favorite drink?
We have a new martini called the Within Martini. Inside The Abbey is a new bar that looks like a boutique bar in a hotel. No DJs, no dancers, it is just really nice. So, the Within Martini is half sauvignon blanc and half vodka with this little splash of St-Germain and a little splash of something special. Since I drink vodka and I drink sauvignon blanc, I figured it saves me a little time.
So, back to the desserts. Are the gays really eating them?
Yes – a lot. And it usually gets a lot busier around one o’clock when people are going home, but yeah, we sell quite a few desserts. I have three full-time pastry chefs and one or two assistants in the bakery.
This Pride may look a bit different than other Prides, but the heart is still the same. The Abbey continues to grow and thrive, just like our community, and will be a safe haven for generations after us. His message this Pride is a thank you.
Thank you for the love and support you’ve given The Abbey, me, The Abbey family and staff, and our community for 30 years. I started it with a dream and a little bit of credit on a credit card. I would never have imagined that we’d be celebrating our 30th year, and I could not have done it without the love of our community and our staff.
Writer’s note: Picture it, 20 years ago. A boy from conservative Orange County nervously walks up to a bar, bursting at the seams with a laughing crowd, music, and Pride. I sat on a stone bench, fashioned like a monastery pew, and ordered my first blueberry martini, well, the first martini ever. Two martinis in and I had made friends with a passerby who liked to talk. That passerby continues to be my best friend 20 years later, and The Abbey continues to be my safe spot whenever I need a pick-me-up, a laugh, or even a cry. Happy Birthday to The Abbey.
Last modified: June 3, 2021