The Abbey’s David Cooley looks back on 30 years of pride, pioneering

David Cooley is known as the man behind The Abbey, one of the most recognized gay bars in the world — but his rise to the top started with a cup of coffee.

“People thought I was crazy,” Cooley remembers. “They said, ‘How will you make a living on selling coffee and cupcakes?’” 

Back then, long before it evolved into the Notre-Dame of gay nightlife, The Abbey was a humble neighborhood cafe Cooley established in 1991 on Robertson Blvd.

ABOVE: The Abbey’s original incarnation as a coffee shop.

Cooley has always trusted his instincts when it comes to business, and it has paid off handsomely. 

“You’d never imagine that 30 years later, we would have 12,500 square feet of the chapel.”

Since 1991, Cooley has transformed The Abbey significantly, adding a sister club (The Chapel) to the sprawling compound. He is also a partner in Bottega Louie’s, a new Italian restaurant just around the corner.

More than just a successful private business, The Abbey has always stood at the vanguard of progressive culture, growing into a mecca for the LGBTQ community and a pulpit from which they could broadcast their voices. 

“I’m glad to know it’s a safe haven for our community,” Cooley said. “I moved to West Hollywood just coming out of college and realizing I was gay, and I gave up all my opportunities as a college grad to move out here to try to make it in West Hollywood because I felt safe, and secure, and where I wanted to be. And that still stands true today.”

How has the nature of gay bars changed over the past 30 years, and how has The Abbey led that change?

Going back, gay bars were focused on a certain clientele. So if you were a lesbian, you would go to these particular bars. If you were into leathermen, you would go to these types of bars.  Then as time passed, people felt comfortable being who they are wherever they wanted to be. I always said everyone is always welcome. It’s so nice to see the diversity that we have 30 years of being at The Abbey. You’re not labeled. 

How well did our local and state governments support The Abbey and similar businesses through the pandemic?

The ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) was extremely supportive. The City of West Hollywood, our local government, extremely supportive. The Health Department … I’ve had questions of how they came up with some of the regulations. Even to this day you could go right now to a stadium, a movie theater with a large crowd, and bars and restaurants cannot allow broadcasting on their televisions. I know they’ve done a wonderful job in helping us to get vaccines. But it’s been difficult having the ongoing changes with the health department.

Photo by Brandon Garcia

You received a PPP loan, correct?

Yes, two. They were enough to get us through. What people don’t understand — even with the business closed, my staff never missed their mortgage payments, their car payments. They were taken care of. But there’s still the expenses of rent, of insurance, of workers. To keep a business closed, it’s a big, big number. I had an equity line on my home that we used to help us a little further. Now business is coming back and we’re doing quite well. We’re not back 100 percent yet but we’re getting there.

What does the future hold for The Abbey and Boystown?

Well, let me tell you after 30 years of living through the AIDS crisis, dealing with the L.A. riots, dealing with earthquakes, dealing with COVID … I’m so, so appreciative, because it’s been a tough 15, 16 months for our industry. Unfortunately a lot of our businesses didn’t make it, so just knowing that I had to open and close four times this year, twice not knowing if I would be able to reopen. But the strength of my staff … we run it as a family business, you know. Many, many big brands, corporate chains of restaurants have closed and not re-opened. But we run it as a family business, and again, the support of our community and the city using the sidewalks and streets to support the businesses. Before you would cross one step out of the boundaries and my security would stop you to take your drink. Now, you can have martinis out on Robertson.

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Kelly Thoompson
Kelly Thoompson
1 year ago

It is common knowledge that the “straightenization” of West Hollywood/Westside is because of the Abbey development. Certainly well intentioned to welcome non-gays to come join us, unfortunately forgetting the dictum with such things that they wouldn’t come join us, but that they would just take over. Thus Pump, Louie, Tom Tom – all mainly for rich straight people.Go take a look any day and see what drives up to the valet in massive black SUV’s. Never does one hear on the street that Abbey is a gay place – in fact when gay visitors ask where the Abbey is, you… Read more »

Marco Colantonio
Marco Colantonio
1 year ago

Congratulations and Happy 30th to The Abbey and David Cooley. The Abbey is the most iconic Gay Bar and Dance Club in the world, a WeHo landmark and the anchor of The Rainbow District. I love David Cooley for many reasons but most of all for his commitment to the community, his humility, and his many charitable endeavors. 30 years is a tribute to his indomitable spirit and love of West Hollywood. What an honor to have been at The Abbey with Barbara Poma, the owner of Pulse Nightclub, as David and the Abbey welcomed the Pulse Nightclub Staff and… Read more »

hifi5000
hifi5000
1 year ago

David Cooley have been very successful with the Abbey and now The Chapel for many years.He sees a trend and than goes for it.You got to hand it to him,however you think of him.

I have been going to the Abbey for many years. There has been a few hiccups,but for the most part,I always have a pleasant time.I go during the late afternoon for happy hour as the crowd at night can get unruly at times.Early afternoons Saturdays and Sundays are good too.

mikie friedman
mikie friedman
1 year ago

I think it was at least 30 years ago, I went there with several of the waiters from Ed Debevic’s, to see a terrific performer who I knew from Chicago. Her name was Pudgie, and she was a fantastic singer/comedienne. I almost didn’t get to see her, however, because when we got to the door, the doorman didn’t want to let me in because they said I needed to wear closed toe shoes. I don’t know what happened, and who said something to somebody, but suddenly they changed their mind and we were ushered in! But I will never forget… Read more »

Nadine
Nadine
1 year ago
Reply to  mikie friedman

Ed Debevic’s! World’s smallest sundae with dancing waiters! Such a fun spot…Abbeys was a cool cafe with really awesome food once upon a time yes thanks for the memories!

Mayshire
Mayshire
1 year ago

Beautiful piece! Love the Abbey’s

Todd Barnes
Todd Barnes
1 year ago

THE COMMENT HAS BEEN REMOVED. THE PERSON IS NOT WHO HE REPRESENED HIMSELF TO BE.

mike
mike
1 year ago
Reply to  Todd Barnes

Damn,you sound like a jilted lover. LOL

Nadine
Nadine
1 year ago
Reply to  Todd Barnes

True

Vigilent
Vigilent
1 year ago
Reply to  Todd Barnes

Is this the best West Hollywood has to offer? This is a person to set a high standard?

Brian
Brian
1 year ago
Reply to  Todd Barnes

This comment was by someone impersonating Todd Barnes. For whatever reason, they don’t want to use their own name and borrow someone else’s.

JJ1
JJ1
1 year ago
Reply to  Todd Barnes

Not to mention that he always plays the victim.

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